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Saturday, March 6, 2021

A flag-bearer for women in STEM

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Prof. Nalini Joshi is recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours with an Order of Australia medal

Eminent mathematician Nalini Joshi has been recognised in Queen’s Birthday Honours list with Order of Australia (AO) for distinguished service to mathematical science and tertiary education as an academic, author and researcher, to professional societies, and as a role model and mentor of young mathematicians.
Nalini Joshi.Indian Link
“I am very humbled by this honour. I love Australia because, as this award shows, it recognises people for the true value of their contributions, no matter what their ethnicity, gender or unconventional life and background might be. This is the Australia I want to see grow,” Joshi told Indian Link.
The prestigious award has inspired the high achieving academic with an infectious lifelong enthusiasm for numbers to “reflect, take the lead and change things for the better”.
A passionate flag bearer of STEM subjects, the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow and the first female professor in Sydney University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics has actively lobbied to reduce the gender gap in mathematics.
“There is still a lot of work to do to attract and retain talented women and minorities in mathematics and in STEM,” Joshi reiterated.
She also wants to shatter general perceptions that mathematics is an esoteric and elitist pursuit, thereby allowing the current generation to embrace the subject freely and without fear and in doing so realise its immense potential in everyday activities.
“I want to tell all the kids who may be hiding how good they are because they are fearful of expectations, stereotypes, or family pressure, that they can excel and be true to themselves at the same time,” Joshi said.
“I want to tell families that talent grows everywhere, no matter what the gender of the child is, that high-powered employers are constantly searching for mathematics graduates. I want to tell everyone to check for unintended messages they might be conveying and to reflect on what they might be doing that discourages women from entering or excelling in their workplace,” she added.
Joshi sincerely hopes that this recognition will enable her to spread the message about mathematics even more widely in Australia and elsewhere in the world.

Nalini Joshi.Indian Link
Photo: Ted Seeley

The world of numbers always fascinated young Nalini Joshi, who found deep fulfilment in mathematics forging new paths into realms nobody else had looked at before. In fact, she dreamed of being an astronaut as the “physics and chemistry of celestial objects and its navigational dynamics” mesmerised her.
When the White Australia policy was lifted in the early seventies, Joshi’s family migrated from Burma in search of stability and brighter prospects.
Learning at her own pace, it was only at university that Joshi finally found her true passion. She went on to win the Sydney University Medal in applied mathematics, eventually moving to Princeton for her PhD.
After stints around Australia and overseas, she returned to the University of Sydney in 2002 as Chair of Applied Mathematics. Soon after she was appointed head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics, becoming the first woman to hold the position.
Joshi was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and has held a number of positions with the Australian Mathematical Society, including its presidency. She was chair of the National Committee for Mathematical Sciences and board member of the Australian Mathematics Trust.

Her research specifically revolves around asymptotics and integrable systems, particularly the French mathematician Painleve’s six classical non linear equations.

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Quite like Joshi, Painleve was an aviation enthusiast. What distinguishes order from chaos? How can we identify systems that are integrable and only have ordered solutions? These are some of the challenges that have absorbed her analytical mind over the decades.
“Amazingly, the ideas on integrable differential equations also extend to difference equations, and even to extended versions of cellular automata,” Joshi explained.
In fact these equations have important uses in many scientific fields. They can model interactions of nuclear particles, describe the behaviour of light in optical fibres and predict the motion of massive waves observed in the Andaman Sea, she added.
As a natural extension, Nalini Joshi’s research has forged strong connections in the realm of mathematical biology. As director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology she worked on problems involving cellular automata, predicting HIV/AIDS-infected T-cell numbers in lymph nodes.
In 2015, Joshi was appointed to the newly created Commonwealth Science Council and became the 150th Anniversary Hardy Lecturer, awarded by the London Mathematical Society and was named in the 100 Women of Influence.
Joshi admitted, “While it takes courage and determination to succeed in most things in life, I think it took more resilience to become a successful academic, while also happening to be a woman who had children.”

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