A numbers game

Mathematics as a modern life foundation

Mathematics is not only a lot more fun and creative than most of us realise; according to Professor Aidan Sims, it is fundamental to nearly every aspect of our modern lives.

“If you look at the top jobs internationally at present – highly-paid, sought-after jobs – most are for mathematicians or data scientists with statistical or mathematical backgrounds,” says Professor Aidan Sims.

“There’s very little of what we do these days that isn’t underpinned by complicated mathematics or mathematical ideas. And there’s even less that doesn’t rest on the ability of people to take a complex, often ill-defined problem apart and figure out how to attack it. That’s perhaps the single most important thing that mathematical and statistical training teaches you.”

And there’s seemingly no end to the places that mathematics and applied statistics can lead, from more obvious pathways such as finance to careers in almost every industry you could imagine. Professor Sims says that the explosion in big data in particular will continue to drive future demand for these transferable skill sets.

Aiden Sims

“Big data is absolutely everywhere; there’s so much data coming in so fast that you can’t possibly store it, you have to analyse it on the fly. We need statistical techniques that can extract meaningful information from this data quickly before it’s lost, and that’s an incredibly difficult mathematical challenge.”

A professor of pure mathematics and head of UOW’s School of Mathematics and Applied Statistics, he is at the forefront in solving highly complex problems using mathematics most of us couldn’t begin to comprehend. His specific expertise is in quantum mathematical systems known as operator algebras.

“My area of mathematics is closely tied to quantum physics. For example, to build quantum computers or devices we need to use these incredible new ‘topological materials’. Without understanding the complex mathematics that lets us predict how they work at very small scales – electrons interacting in an atom – we can’t progress to actually building functioning quantum computers. You really feel yourself contributing to future technology; that what you’re doing might one day get us to Mars or help build these quantum computers.”

Professor Sims’s love of maths is in his blood. His father is a mathematician who nurtured his son’s natural talent for seeking out the kernel of complexity in the world around him. But a career in maths wasn’t initially on the cards. Intent on becoming a computer scientist, he enrolled in a double degree in computer science and mathematics. The maths component was just for fun – but somewhere in his third year, passion prevailed.

“I discovered that maths was not what I’d seen at school; it was far more creative than I’d been led to realise. What I love is that you really feel like you’re playing the world’s biggest, best puzzle game – like a really complicated Sudoku – but what you’re creating has transformational impact in the real world.”

His path illuminated, he gained his PhD at the University of Newcastle, winning an Australian Research Council (ARC) postdoctoral fellowship that led him to join UOW in 2007. In a stellar – and still relatively young – career at the university, he has secured almost $3.5 million in competitive research grants, published nearly 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, held numerous key leadership roles and was named 2015 UOW Researcher of the Year. A Fellow of the Australian Mathematical Society, he achieved the pinnacle of recognition for Australian mathematicians in 2016, winning the coveted Australian Mathematical Society Medal.

Aiden Sims

Professor Sims says UOW’s deeply supportive environment has not only empowered his growth but that of the next generation of students, researchers and professionals. Personal connection is key – every student is linked with an academic mentor and engages meaningfully with researchers and a broader community of students and staff. The course flexibility and offerings are unmatched.

“We were the first maths department in the country to run a degree in financial mathematics, strongly linked with financial institutions that know the quality of our programs and are keen to employ our students. We’re particularly excited to roll out
our new Bachelor of Data Science and Analytics program next year, which blends computer science and statistics to produce uniquely qualified graduates ready to do some really high-powered analytics.”

The challenge now is to open the minds of students – and teachers – to unlocking the broad-ranging potential of mathematics. Professor Sims says that while people like YouTube celebrity maths teacher Eddie Woo are helping shift perceptions, there’s still much work to do.

“There’s a real problem with the pipeline into STEM. We’ve got to get the message across in schools that maths can be a lot of fun and that mathematical preparation is critical to so many jobs of the future.”

Aiden Sims
Senior Professor, School of Mathematics & Applied Statistics, Faculty of Engineering & Computer Science