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A Q&A with Nalini Joshi

24 March 2017
A candid 5 minute interview

One year on from her acclaimed Press Club speech on gender equity in science, we catch up with Professor Nalini Joshi, Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow and Chair of Applied Mathematics, to talk about progress in this arena and the unveiling of her portrait. 

What is your background and why did you decide to join the University?

It’s been a long journey to where I am now. I was born in Burma and emigrated to Australia with my parents when I and my younger brother were children. I was an avid reader and in Australia, I fell in love with science fiction, which led me to think that science and maths would be a wonderful future career for me. I was a small child with a big dream.

I did a Bachelor of Science with honours at this University, before going on to complete a PhD in applied and computational maths at Princeton University. Since then, I have worked at three other universities in Australia, before being appointed a professor here. 

On International Women’s Day, a portrait of you was unveiled in MacLaurin Hall. It is a far more casual portrait than the others hung there. What inspired this?

When I first sat for the portrait, I was conflicted. I wondered whether I needed to look like the people around the walls of MacLaurin Hall - that is, formal, rigid, and worthy of being hung there.

In my first sittings, I tried to look like them and failed miserably. So the artist, Celeste Chandler, and I had a chat about what would make me feel like I belonged. I said I would feel most comfortable sitting cross-legged in Victoria Park. Celeste suggested sitting cross-legged in front of a chalkboard with some equations on it.

That’s how we ended up with the portrait as it is now. I think it’s wonderful how the painting brings together my Asian background, my personality and my mathematics, with its meditative composition and my medium in my hand and behind me. 

You grew up in Burma, a country with a very complicated political history. Were you aware of these political realities when you were a child? 

When I was young, Burma was both a beautiful and a difficult country to live in. Our sense of belonging there was not always reciprocated because of our ethnicity. The fact that my father was of Indian background led to him being conscripted into the Burmese army so that he could be sent to far-flung places on the border to fight rebels. So I spent part of my childhood in the Golden Triangle [an area overlapping Myanmar, Laos and Thailand], where much of the world’s opium is still produced.

For a long time after we left, we were not allowed to visit Burma; I was told that we might have been imprisoned if we had tried. Now that it is easier to visit, I find myself feeling very conflicted about visiting.

Professor Nalini Joshi (centre) with artist Celeste Chandler and Professor Stephen Garton at the unveiling of her portrait in MacLaurin Hall on International Women's Day. 

It’s often argued that there’s a correlation between musical talent and mathematical skill. Do you consider yourself to be a musical person? 

There is probably a correlation between knitting and maths and cooking and maths too. I like knitting, cooking, music, maths and many other things! I do consider myself a musical person because listening to music is a very emotional experience for me. I love classical music, particularly Mahler symphonies. But I also love more recent music, from pop to folk and blues.

Much has been written about the idea that mathematics can be beautiful. Do you believe this is true? 

Yes, maths is beautiful. I have come across many beautiful things in mathematics. Perhaps the most beautiful ones are ideas or connections that transcend concrete objects like numbers or equations. Take the example of the Towers of Hanoi, which is a puzzle about moving discs stacked on one pole to another pole.

There are three poles and two rules. The first rule is that you can only move one disc at a time. The second rule is that no disc can be stacked on top of another unless the top one is smaller.

Now instead of thinking about moving one disc at a time, think about all the possible configurations of discs that appear at any step in the game. Think about each configuration as connected to another only if they can be achieved by moving one disc. All of a sudden, the picture starts assembling itself into a fractal.

If you take a limit where the number of discs becomes arbitrarily large, then you see a fractal called Sierpinski’s gasket. This picture is also connected to cryptographic codes. Why? We don’t know. But these connections are unexpectedly beautiful. This happens over and over again in maths. Ideas that work in one setting somehow pop into existence in a totally different setting. These sudden realisations are miraculous and allow us to make advances because new properties become visible. 

It’s been almost a year since you addressed the National Press Club on the topic of gender inequity within science. What progress has been made since then and what remains to be done? 

The need for change is becoming more visible in Australia, because there is a lot happening with SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equity), a national program that aims to change the culture in organisations that employ women researchers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). But often what I see is two steps forward and one step back.

People come up to me to ask “What should I do? Tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” While this shows a keen interest, it unfortunately avoids personal and organisational reflection.

Each of us has to think about what we are doing that contributes to the whole culture before that culture can change.

One way to check is to look at what happens with communication. Do you know what the data on diversity is in your local setting? How many women were recruited, promoted or left the organisation last year? Have those numbers changed significantly over the past decade? If you don’t know, there is a problem. 

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