Australian mathematicians recognised for contributions to research, teaching and the discipline

This week the Australian Mathematical Society recognises the work of leading Australian mathematicians at its 65th Annual Meeting.

The hybrid event, hosted by the University of Newcastle, started today and saw the award of the AustMS Medal, the George Szekeres Medal, the Society’s Award for Teaching Excellence, and the Gavin Brown Prize. These prizes cover the breadth of contributions of mathematicians—from distinguished research of a mid-career researcher to sustained outstanding contributions; from teaching to specific outstanding publications in the last decade.

The AustMS Medal

The Australian Mathematical Society Medal is awarded to a member of the Society under the age of 40, for distinguished research in the mathematical sciences. This year the Medal is awarded to Professor Serena Dipierro of the University of Western Australia for her outstanding contributions to analysis and the study of Partial Differential Equations (PDEs).

Professor Serena Dipierro, source

Her research aims at establishing regularity properties and geometric features of the interfaces occurring in phase transitions. In addition to their mathematical interest, such questions arise naturally in applications to physics, engineering, mathematical finance and population dynamics. She is a prolific researcher with a large international network of collaborators and has become one of the leaders of her field. In the nine years since the award of her PhD, her publications have amassed over 1100 citations in the MathSciNet database (paywall).

Dipierro’s dedication to the mathematical community is demonstrated by her many leadership roles, including as Head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Western Australia, as a Council member of the Australian Mathematical Society, and as Secretary of the Women in Mathematics Special Interest Group.

The official citation for Prof. Dipierro can be read here.

  1. What is your first mathematical memory?

SD: I am not sure this is a mathematical memory, but certainly a very early sign that I found numbers very fascinating! I remember that when I was a kid my dad used to tell me stories before putting me to bed and I always asked him not to tell me classical stories but rather to count at least till one hundred (or till he fell asleep)… 

  1. What does this award mean to you?

SD: I consider this medal one of the major accomplishments of my academic career so far. Of course, prizes and awards are important, but after all we do maths for the fun of it and the prizes received are not necessarily a significant measure of the quality of a mathematician. But this particular award makes me exceptionally happy both for the incredibly high standing of the prize and especially for the breathtaking list of previous awardees: having my name in the same list of many of my mathematical heroes is a very special feeling which is hard to describe.

  1. What is one mathematical fact or idea you would wish the broader public to know?

SD: I think that partial differential equations and nonlocal equations are beautiful mathematical topics with an immense impact on applied sciences. The broader public is perhaps not too familiar with these subjects, and I believe that a wide-ranging dissemination of these ideas would produce an immense benefit in terms of knowledge and culture, not only because it would help the public approach some fundamental aspects of mathematics, but also since it would clearly show how sophisticated mathematical theories are deeply rooted in very natural questions arising in the real world. All in all, pure mathematics is not separated from concrete problems and applications, and topics such as partial differential equations and nonlocal equations could provide paradigmatic examples for the broader public of this remarkable unity of thought which lies at the foundation of all mathematical investigations.

The AustMS Medal was established in 1981 and is awarded annually.

George Szekeres Medal

The George Szekeres Medal is awarded annually for a sustained outstanding contribution to the mathematical sciences in Australia by a Society member. This year it is awarded to Professor Mathai Varghese FAA FAustMS of the University of Adelaide

Professor Mathai Varghese. Source Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA

Mathai Varghese has made significant contributions to geometric analysis and to mathematical physics. Among the highlights are his co-invention of Projective and Fractional Index Theory, which has recently been generalized to certain infinite dimensional manifolds and for the Mathai–Quillen formalism in Index theory and topological field theories. He is also renowned for his research in String Theory, T-duality in a background flux with a change of topology and novel applications to condensed matter physics.

Mathai was Vice-President (Annual Conferences) of the Society for 2006–09 and a member of the Program Committee for the Conferences between 2007 and 2010.

Mathai is Sir Thomas Elder Professor of Mathematics, and has been Director of the Institute for Geometry and its Applications since 2009, repeatedly attracting funding for conferences and lecture series.

The official citation for Professor Varghese can be read here.

  1. What is your first mathematical memory?

MV: Reading inspiring books on mathematicians and their research such as by E.T. Bell, Men of Mathematics. Reading textbooks on geometry, topology, number theory, logic at the British Council library in Bangalore, India, when I was in high school.

  1. What does this award mean to you?

MV: I am deeply honoured to receive the George Szekeres medal from the Australian Mathematical Society, recognizing my research and also my service to the society which has been my privilege.

  1. What is one mathematical fact or idea you would wish the broader public to know?

MV: Atiyah-Singer Index Theory is ubiquitous in Mathematics and Physics!

The George Szekeres Medal was first awarded in 2002 and was named for Hungarian-Australian mathematician George Szekeres who, with his wife and fellow mathematician Esther Szekeres, fled Nazi persecution in WWII. It was awarded in even-numbered years until 2020, and is now an annual award.

Award for Teaching Excellence (Early Career)

The AustMS awards an annual Award for Teaching Excellence, to recognise and reward outstanding contribution to teaching and student learning in the mathematical sciences at the tertiary level. This year the award goes to Dr Sarah Dart, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Mechanical, Medical and Process Engineering at Queensland University of Technology.

Sarah is Strategic Lead for Learning and Teaching Development, Impact and Recognition within the Learning and Teaching Unit. The Award is for using technology to support learning of mathematics for large and diverse student cohorts, including development of worked example videos to improve problem-solving skills, and implementation of personalised emails to foster an effective learning environment when transitioning to university. Her YouTube channel, The Ryder Project, showcases extensive teaching materials and at the time of writing has over 5380 subscribers.

The official citation for Dr Sarah Dart can be read here.

  1. What is your first mathematical memory?

SD: One early memory I have is when I learned how to do vertical addition in primary school. I remember thinking that the process was quite straightforward to replicate even for big numbers, so I wrote out some numbers with a heap of digits and proceeded to add them up. I think my teacher was very surprised. 

  1. What does this award mean to you?

SD: It is nice to be recognised for the efforts that go into creating high-quality learning and teaching experiences. Additionally, I have drawn ideas from people that have won similar awards in the past, so I hope that my work being highlighted can help others to think about how they can evolve their practices to ultimately enhance student learning.

  1. What is one mathematical fact or idea you would wish the broader public to know?

SD: That maths is a fantastic tool that helps us to understand and solve all kinds of problems!

Gavin Brown Prize

The Gavin Brown Prize recognises an outstanding and innovative piece of research in the mathematical sciences published by a member or members of the Society. This year it is jointly awarded to:

Meylan et al‘s paper addresses the difficult problem of modelling the interaction between sea-ice and waves, a situation where it is difficult and expensive to conduct field measurements, the scale of the interactions to too fine for satellites, and current purely numerical methods are not sufficient.

The paper is described as having an analysis “conducted with mathematical sophistication, […] demonstrating that the attenuation coefficient has a power-law behaviour with exponent around three. The main body of the paper unravels the origin of the power-law behaviour, showing how it arises in many models in the regime of interest and how the exponent can be extracted. The analysis empowers the construction of models with the correct exponent.”

The official citation for Meylan et al can be read here. I managed to catch up with A/Prof Meylan before the awards (Prof Luke Bennetts, as winner of the AustMS medal last year, answered the same questions at the time; you can read his responses here).

  1. What is your first mathematical memory?

Mike Meylan: I remember early in school finding it strange that people memorized the multiplication tables when they were so easy to work out.

  1. What does this award mean to you?

MM: It is a recognition of all the work I have applied over the years and others put into teaching me, including the co-authors on this paper.

  1. What is one mathematical fact or idea you would wish the broader public to know?

MM: In this work we use mathematics to find the answer to a problem that has critical implications for modelling the earth’s climate.  People should know that mathematics is the most powerful tool to understand our world.

Brett Parker’s paper is described as “the culminating paper in a series of papers detailing a remarkable new theory of exploded manifolds which Parker has been methodically building over more than 15 years. This is a gigantic and profound project.” In the words of one of the assessors, “I believe that Parker has done impressively original work and difficult work.[…] I can certainly recommend the nominated paper for the Gavin Brown prize in the strongest possible terms.”

The official citation for Brett Parker’s paper can be read here.

  1. What is your first mathematical memory?

BP: I can remember one Christmas, with my extended family after Christmas lunch. Someone was posing some logic puzzles — they might even have come in those paper crowns in the place of the terrible jokes. I can’t recall the exact puzzles, one of them might have been the problem of carrying a fox, a chicken and a dog across a river in a boat that could only take 2 animals at once.

  1. What does this award mean to you?

BP: It’s validating to have this work recognised. Because it was a very different approach, it took several years to become accepted. That was hard, given the somewhat unforgiving job market for academic positions.

  1. What is one mathematical fact or idea you would wish the broader public to know?

BP: As a mathematician, I’m looking for the moment when I’m confused, and things don’t seem to be working how I expected. Often, that means I’m about to make progress, and learn, or even discover something new. Sometimes in school, mathematics is presented as something full of certainty, with a clear algorithm to arrive at the right answer. The process of mathematical discovery is very different from this. We’re looking to arrive at certainty in the end, but it is long road to get there.

The Gavin Brown Prize was established in 2011 and is awarded for a single article, monograph or book consisting of original research, and published within the 10 years preceding the year of the award.