Australia’s beloved mathematician adds another notch to her belt
Despite being certain she wasn’t going to win, Professor Nalini Joshi AO was awarded the 2018 University of Technology Sydney Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentor of Young Researchers.
Currently holding the position of Chair of Applied Mathematics at the University of Sydney, Professor Joshi has mentored over thirty researchers throughout her life and was an initiator of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Program.
“No mathematician I know has ever won a Eureka Award because it usually goes to achievements that have some kind of tangible impact on people’s lives,” Professor Joshi said on why she didn’t think she would win.
Then, it came to the crunch that I had had an impact on the issues to do with mentoring and encouraging women in STEMM because I initiated the SAGE program in Australia.
“It’s already having a great impact on our lives and the way organisations work, so I guess it was an acknowledgement of that and it was very gratifying and humbling to have that.”
Professor Joshi’s love of mathematics stemmed from her childhood in Burma when she used to play traditional counting games, which essentially explored finding patterns in numbers.
Later, when she and her family moved to Australia, Professor Joshi fell in love with science fiction.
“I was already an avid reader but I fell in love with this new genre which I hadn’t seen before and decided I had to become a scientist because I have to solve the problems of the world,” she explained.
As I went through that falling in love with science, I realised that I really needed mathematics to understand some of the counterintuitive ideas, so I decided to go that way instead, and that’s how I became a mathematician.
The mathematician was born to parents of Indian ethnicity in the Burmese capital of Rangoon, otherwise known as Yangon, and she spent much of her childhood in a coup d’état.
“It became clearer and clearer that the way they wanted to run the country was to minimise other ethnic groups,” Professor Joshi said.
“For example, my father, who was a doctor, was conscripted to the army and we were sent to live in the golden triangle regions, which at the time, was the largest producer of opium in the world, so it was an incredibly difficult time for my parents.”
In 1971, Professor Joshi and her family moved to Australia, a time when various policies, collectively coined the White Australia Policy, were being progressively dismantled.
It was difficult to get any of the foods we were used to, so it was very hard for my mum when she went out to look for things like yoghurt, which you could only buy at Greek shops.
“I also knew some English because my parents had tried to make sure that we learnt some before we arrived here, but it was very difficult to understand the Australian accent,” she recalled.
“But, the move was great in another sense as it was very easy to make friends with the people at school because most of the other kids were also from migrant backgrounds.”
Unfortunately, however, the transition to a new life and difficulty with language meant Professor Joshi wasn’t able to share her love of Burmese counting games with her new friends.
“People thought I was a really quiet and shy person, but actually I was trying to work out how to say things so they would be meaningful and conveyed in the right way,” she said.
I think that also led to me not trying to convey the culturally distinctive Burmese things to my friends, because I was trying to understand how to become Australian.
Since then, Professor Joshi has become one of the country’s most distinguished mathematicians, becoming the first female head of maths and science at University of Sydney’s School of Mathematics and Statistics.
She is also a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, an Officer of the Order of Australia and a Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow in mathematics – and she’s far from done.
“I hope mathematic education becomes more accessible to society, and that more ideas to do with creative play become embedded in the way we teach math to younger people,” she said.
Mathematical ideas are so beautiful and so deep and so profound, that I can’t imagine what will happen or come out in the future, but I know it will be very, very important.
Follow Professor Joshi on Twitter HERE.