Q&A with the AustMS 2016 Women Plenary Speakers

Adelle Coster


What is your name and what do you do?

I’m Adelle Coster. I’m an applied mathematician at the University of New South Wales. I use dynamical systems, stochastic modelling and queueing theory, amongst other techniques to develop mathematical models, algorithms and solutions to real world problems, largely in the areas of medicine and biology. I also teach a range of undergraduate subjects from first year calculus through to higher year applied mathematics courses like dynamical systems, mathematical methods and partial differential equations.

Why do you do mathematics?

I’ve always enjoyed maths – but I really like the way you can use mathematics to solve real world problems. I follow the Lord Kelvin maxim: “When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it, but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind!”

What is a typical workday like for you?

Mornings are chaotic to get everyone out of the house (I have two school aged boys). I usually make it down to university around 9am. I walk to work which is a great advantage as this provides free thinking time. Unfortunately much of the time any plans that were made along the way are thwarted by the things that have to be done once I get to the office!

If scheduling allows I try and go to see my collaborators on the way to Maths, that way I don’t get diverted to other tasks instead of research. This can happen very easily, especially during teaching semesters.

Currently I do a mix of teaching (a fair amount), administration and “service to my discipline” (a fair amount) and research (whatever I can fit in). As teaching and committee meetings, etc. are timetabled events, these sometimes have the effect of pushing other, less time definite things (i.e. research) down the priority list. It is important to try and make sure that it doesn’t get squashed completely! Scheduling research meetings with collaborators helps me with this.

The working day is not 9 to 5. Often I work in the evenings and/or weekends. Sometimes this is because of deadlines (e.g., marking or reports) but other times it is because I want to know the outcome of a particular investigation or simulation, or to get a solution to a particular problem. I guess that hasn’t changed across my career – you can’t timetable when you’re going to think or have inspiration! Generally however my work days have become increasingly timetabled over time which makes it harder to fit everything in – you have to be come increasingly efficient!

What keeps you in research? Have you had to overcome any barriers or problems?

I really love building models for real world systems – particularly in biology and medicine. Mathematics can reveal the possible ways that the systems can work, creating knowledge and insights into systems in a quantitative and predictive way. I particularly like working with experimentalists, because we can complement each others’ strengths. I get to make hypotheses about structure and function but also importantly test our theories and these investigations help design new experiments.

The interdisciplinary nature of my research provides a wealth of knowledge from the application areas, but can also mean that some of the outputs are not seen by mathematicians. This can be a disadvantage in grant applications etc. However the problems are exceedingly interesting so that is a big driver.

How important is travelling?

I have only just started to travel and attend international meetings again in the last couple of years as family responsibilities kept me local for a while. I have found however that it is entirely possible to initiate and continue international collaborations purely via email. It is a lot slower though than physically getting together. It is difficult to network and be known in the mathematical community without attending meetings and conferences.

Scientific meetings are also a wonderful opportunity to visit a place which may not necessarily be a big tourist destination or somewhere you ever imagined you would go! It is a really fantastic side-effect that we get to see the world.

Do you have any advice for others who are starting a mathematical career? 

My undergraduate degree was in Physics. My PhD supervisor was an Electrical Engineer. My first postdoc was in a theoretical physics institute, my second in Electrical Engineering. Then I got an academic position in Mathematics. Whilst the connecting thread between all these was mathematical modelling (and me of course!), the application areas changed and the scientific communities were different. This meant starting again building connections each time.

Being a part of a scientific network is really useful. Networking at meetings such as AustMS and ANZIAM is terrific. I would certainly encourage everyone to try and be part of their scientific community – hopefully your supervisors and colleagues will help introduce you if you are new.

Networking exposes you to opportunities for research, collaborations and jobs. Being involved in scientific societies is also good. You do, however, need to balance building your CV with this type of service with the amount of time it can take – and you really need to use your research time for research!

If you end up in an academic career then there are plenty of other things to take up your time. But the bottom line is do what you enjoy! I feel it is a great privilege to have a job where I am paid to think.

Alex James


What is your name and what do you do?

I am Alex James and I am an Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury, NZ. I am also the Deputy Director of Te Punaha Matatini, which is a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence focusing on Data Analytics for economics, social science and the biosphere.

Why do you do mathematics?

If I didn’t do maths I’d have to get a real job!

I started off doing Physics at university but after a first year of some appalling physics teaching but excellent maths teaching (especially from Robin Johnson at the University of Newcastle, UK) I switched to maths. I was never really interested in hard sums but I always knew that maths would answer my questions about everything else.

My biggest role model was my PhD supervisor. He taught me that there’s more to academic life than just doing research. We should also make sure other people get to do good research too. He showed me that mathematical modelling is a subject in its own right; you don’t have to be an expert in just one thing – being a jack-of-all-trades is just as good. Finally he taught me that sums don’t have to be hard to be useful.

What is a typical workday like for you?

Currently my typical working day starts with making lego houses followed by a trip to the swings – I am on parental leave with my second child πŸ™‚ 
I’ve also been part time for the last couple of years so even when I’m working I get to the park quite often.

My (paid) work days are very compartmentalised; I’m either having a teaching/student/admin day or a research day. I find this helps me get more research done. All my research is very collaborative so when I’m not in front of a computer testing out ideas I’m arguing out ideas with a colleague.

I spend more time these days getting other people to do research than I did earlier on. Sometimes this is by supervising students but also through admin like writing research plans for Te Punaha.

What keeps you in research? Have you had to overcome any barriers or problems?

I keep doing research because I enjoy it. I chat to my ecology friends and they always have some interesting problems that I think maths or stats could help with.

How important is travelling?

Travel is one of the hardest things for me at the moment. With two small children leaving the house is hard enough let alone getting on a plane. It is important but not quite as much as some people will tell you.

Do you have any advice for others who are starting a mathematical career? 

Ask. Academics are terrible at offering people help but if you ask them they will fall over themselves to be helpful.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself? 

Remember Feynmann: “What do you care what other people think?”

Kavita Ramanan (Hanna Neumann Lecturer)


What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Kavita Ramanan. I am a Professor in the Division of Applied Mathematics at Brown University. I do research in probability theory and related fields. I also teach courses and have occasionally served as a consultant.

Why do you do mathematics?

The short answer is because I like doing it, enjoy the challenge to be creative and think deeply, and feel that the broad endeavour is of some value to society. It makes me a perpetual student, and I love learning, as much as I do communicating what I have learned. On the one hand, mathematics is abstract and has an aesthetic appeal, like many art forms, and on the other hand, mathematics has many concrete applications to diverse fields that can also be very exciting, and leads to different intellectual challenges. My work has emphasized different aspects in different proportions at different times, and I enjoy the range that this offers. I also greatly appreciate the independence to choose what to work on, and to direct my own trajectory. Finally, as an educator, I enjoy having to constantly engage with younger people who are full of new ideas and perspectives, and as a researcher, I appreciate the ability to meet and make meaningful connections with people from all over the world.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I do not have a typical work day, but I could perhaps try to describe a typical week. Broadly, my activities include research, mentoring, teaching, grant writing, committee work and travelling to give lectures and seminars.

I have regular weekly research meetings with my graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and other mentorees (e.g., visiting students, undergraduate students doing an Honours project), with more frequent meetings whenever there is something urgent or exciting to discuss. I also sometimes have SKYPE calls with collaborators. During the semester, I of course also teach, hold office hours for students, attend seminars, colloquia, etc.

I also have editorial responsibilities and engage in administrative issues, such as attending faculty meetings and other department committee meetings, and also respond to various e-mails related to various professional committees that I serve on. I sometimes have collaborators visiting, in which case I try to set aside more time for research discussions with them. I also do a fair bit of traveling to give lectures, colloquia at universities and also to attend conferences.

I try to keep at least one day (if not more) in the week when I can be alone, and focus fully on my research, without other distractions. On such a day, I might be working on completing a paper, working hard on a specific problem, reading a book or other research papers of interest, etc.

My workload has definitely changed from when I was an early career researcher – it has increased both in scope and quantity.

What keeps you in research? Have you had to overcome any barriers or problems?

I always had a penchant for mathematics and wanted to pursue a career in which the line between work and pleasure is blurred. Doing research in mathematics offers me just that opportunity. The joy of the flash of insight that you get after trying to understand something deeply is indescribable. I also enjoy the challenge of then conveying these small insights to a broader audience and soliciting different perspectives on the problem I am thinking about.

I do not take for granted even the fact that I had the privilege of getting a higher education – there are many people in the world who struggle to even get schooling. I also feel extremely fortunate to have had close family and friends that valued my career, and many generous colleagues. So, from that broad perspective, I feel any personal problems or barriers I have had to face pale in significance. But, I do think it is important to recognize possible systemic barriers that are present, and do what one can to try to eliminate them.

How important is travelling?

I think some amount of travel can be useful for getting exposed to new ideas, initiating new collaborations, and disseminating your work, but too much travel can also be detrimental if it does not leave you enough free time to think deeply and indulge in the creative process. I think there are a variety of successful researchers, some who travel a lot and some who do not. So I think it depends very much on the style of the researcher and the degree to which one has resources at one’s own institution or geographic location.

Another side-benefit of travel is that it offers the potential to develop meaningful connections with researchers all over the world. I have found this a very rewarding aspect of my career.

Do you have any advice for others who are starting a mathematical career? 

Try to surround yourself with people who value what you do. Hold yourself to high standards but do not be overly harsh on yourself. Identify your strong points and play to your strengths. Try not to be too sensitive to what other people say and take all criticism (whether or not well meant) as an opportunity to get better. Above all, be patient and work hard.

Q&A with Lesley Ward to come …