Q&A with the AustMS 2020 Female Plenary Speakers

Rowena Ball

What is your name and what do you do?

Hullo! Rowena Ball here, Adjunct Associate Professor at MSI, ANU.

Why do you do mathematics?

I do maths because there is always more maths beyond the horizon! In practical terms I value the predictive capabilities of good mathematical modelling. I was always motivated to apply mathematical techniques to solve real-world applied problems.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I write and run codes, collect and process the data, draft and revise papers, talk with collaborators, do schools outreach, maintain my maths & science blog, do refereeing work, prepare talks, search literature, do admin, arrange travels. In my early career stages I also had considerable child care and elder care responsibilities. I do still have considerable family responsibilities on a daily basis — families don’t go away!

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

I relish the challenges of wicked problems. I have enjoyed some great research successes and achieved major competitive grant funding. But over the years I have also had to deal with the worst that international research systems can throw: rejections, unfairness, embedded sexism and racism, rogue referees, lack of recognition, plagiarism. I am still here though! And I am not going any place soon.

How important is travelling?

Do travel when you can, to disseminate your work and get to know others around the world in your field. But when there are periods of several years when you cannot travel, try to tap into funding that allows you to bring national and international colleagues and collaborators to you. The pandemic and the associated normalization of zoom-like tools has made travel less essential, but, when it is safe, there is no substitute for getting to know colleagues in person.

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

Don’t give up. Keep going. You are worthwhile and your work is great. Don’t give up — I can guarantee that your hard work will pay off and be recognised, even if you can’t see it right now. I think women sometimes give up too easily, and given the pressures on most of us, I don’t blame us. It may take longer, but don’t give up. Whether it’s an elusive research result, a grant that didn’t get up, a personal goal — keep going. Because your efforts will be rewarded.

As a mathematician you already have a unique set of career skills: You know how to cut through the crap. You know how important it is to master the simple things before trying to do the difficult ones. You know there are no recipes ­— as researchers we write the recipes. With those skills you can confidently pursue a career within or outside academia.

Make mistakes. Sometimes there is a correct mistake, believe me!

Kerrie Mengersen (Hanna Neumann Lecturer)

What is your name and what do you do?

Kerrie Mengersen, Distinguished Professor of Statistics at QUT. I focus on research and leadership. I am currently an ARC Laureate, the Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers (ACEMS) and the Director of the QUT Centre for Data Science.

Why do you do mathematics?

I do stats. It’s such an enabling and diverse profession, involving maths and communication, theory and computation, and a lot of real-world application.

My teachers at school inspired in me a love of mathematics. I saw statistics ‘at work’ solving very cool problems at university. My supervisor, Dr Eve Bofinger at UNE, motivated me to do a PhD. Richard Tweedie gave my first job as a statistical consultant and taught me to breathe my job. Julian Besag, Christian Robert and Robert Wolpert encouraged me into Bayesian statistics.

What is a typical workday like for you?

My current day is a real mix of working on research projects with students and colleagues, and management tasks related to our research centres. I serve on a number of committees and in national and international professional societies. I also maintain an active practice in statistical consulting.

This has changed a lot over the course of my career. I did a lot of teaching early in my academic career, but this has now been replaced with management.

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

I love the iterative nature of identifying the core statistical challenge that is holding up an applied problem, trying to address that challenge, then translating the new knowledge back to the application.

How important is travelling?

We benefit greatly from travelling since it allows us to spend time with colleagues to think through and discuss problems. We also create networks and transfer knowledge through conferences. It’s much more effective face-to-face, although nowadays we are learning to ‘travel’ virtually — and we will learn to do this better.

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

Have courage, take up opportunities, promote yourself and others. Learn about your role in a broader space, such as data science. Learn to code. Love what you do.

Reidun Twarock

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Reidun Twarock and I am Professor of Mathematical Virology at the University of York in the UK. I am currently an EPSRC Established Career Fellow, a Royal Society Wolfson Fellow and, together with experimentalist Peter Stockley from the University of Leeds, a Wellcome Trust Investigator.

Why do you do mathematics?

I have been fascinated by shapes and numbers from a very early age. As long as I can remember I wanted to be a mathematician as pursuing mathematical problems and solving puzzles makes me profoundly happy. I just cannot imagine a life without mathematics!

My exciting journey into Mathematical Biology began at a Mathematical Physics conference in Paris in 2002, where I attended a talk about icosahedral viruses by the eminent biophysicist Robijn Bruinsma from UCLA. As icosahedral symmetry is non-crystallographic, I realised that the mathematical techniques I was working on at that time could be further developed for applications in virology. Virologist Lars Liljas at the Biomedicum in Uppsala drew my attention to the structural puzzle of the cancer-causing papillomaviruses, that I tackled with my background in non-crystallographic symmetries and aperiodic tilings. By that time, I was hooked — it was the beginning of Mathematical Virology. In 2004, I met experimentalist Peter Stockley from the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology at the nearby located University of Leeds, and we started developing our highly integrative interdisciplinary approach, making joint discoveries that neither theory nor experiment could have achieved in isolation. The joy of solving mathematical puzzles, and creating mathematical concepts and approaches that can act as drivers of discovery in biology is addictive, and I take great pleasure in translating difficult biological questions into mathematics in order to render apparently intractable problems accessible though the lens of viral geometry.

Both the mathematical and the biological questions are equally important to me. From a mathematical point of view, I particularly enjoy developing techniques that are of interest beyond the application area they have been designed for. For example, it was nice to see that my models for virus architecture can also account for nested carbon cage structures called carbon onions, and apply to different types of protein containers in nanotechnology. I really enjoy working in a highly interdisciplinary environment in close collaboration with other theoreticians, such as computational biophysicists, and experimentalists, and to jointly tackle complex biological questions. This enables me to develop predictive – rather than descriptive – models, that deliver insights with profound impact in virology, triggering major discoveries and overturning paradigms.

What is a typical workday like for you?

There is no average day at the office — luckily! Since Summer 2018, I am an EPSRC Established Career Fellow, which means that I don’t have any teaching commitments at present. But that doesn’t make my day any less busy. Running a large interdisciplinary team with several Post Doctoral Research Assistants (PDRAs) and PhD students together with my colleagues Eric Dykeman and Rich Bingham, and working closely with the experimental team of Peter Stockley in Leeds, whilst also pursuing research projects with many other colleagues across different countries and disciplines, guarantees that every day is eventful and fun. I love being hands on in my projects, and I pursue many different interconnected projects that work towards a larger overarching goal. Depending on the stage a project is at, this can involve anything from mathematical work on paper, computational work, the writing up of results for publication, or the planning of new projects.

The mentoring of junior colleagues and research staff is also very important to me, and I am taking an active part in their career planning, including preparations for conference presentations, and applications for follow-up positions, fellowships or other funding. Some days involve the refereeing of research papers and grant applications, editorial work, and sometimes also work on outreach activities with artists. For example, we are working with William Latham’s team of computer artists at Goldsmiths, who have a strong track record in showcasing their work at events such as the Viennale and Open Days at the the Francis Crick Institute in London, to create virtual models of virus structure based on our research. The joint work “Virus” is based on one of my more recent articles in Nature Communications on a new paradigm for virus structure modelling. It was showcased at the Lowry Gallery in Manchester in the exhibition “The State of Us” last year, offering an interactive virtual reality trip through mathematical models of virus architecture. I have also developed teacher’s packs together with my team, that can be downloaded for free from the “Teaching” tab at the top right of my personal website at the University of York: https://www-users.york.ac.uk/~rt507/. You can use this material to explain virus architecture and symmetries to your students, and even construct some models of viruses from paper with them.

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

One of the biggest hurdles is being able to fit in all the diverse demands on my time. After 20 years of working as an academic I still haven’t fully worked out the magic formula for how to deal with this. But it is a small price to pay for being allowed to do the job I love.

How important is travelling?

Travelling to conferences or collaboration is an essential part of my work. It is so much fun discussing talks in the coffee breaks with colleagues, and many new collaborations have sprung from this. I am therefore really sad that I can’t be with you at the conference this year due to the Covid situation.

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

Do come and join the party — it’s a wonderful career! There are so many exciting open problems where mathematics can make a real difference in our understanding of Biology — and science more broadly — and where biological questions can spur the invention of new mathematical concepts and approaches.

If you apply your mathematical skills in the context of application areas such as Virology, make sure to get a clear understanding of the fundamental open questions at the forefront of the field, so that you can make profound contributions in both Mathematics and your chosen area of application. We are only just beginning to see the enormous contributions that Mathematics will make in Biology and other application areas in future. Subjects like Physics and Chemistry are traditionally intertwined with Mathematics, and this relationship has triggered important developments in Mathematics over the last centuries. The many ongoing activities worldwide, developing mathematical concepts from network, group and graph theory, geometry, topology and discrete mathematics, alongside the more traditional fields dynamical systems, ordinary and partial differential equations, for applications in Biology are testimony to the fact that the same will be true for Mathematics and Biology.