Harnessing data to solve problems

A diverse career in mathematics

From predicting when an airplane needs servicing to increasing the number of mattresses sold at a furniture start-up, this former BlueScope cadet shows how diverse a career in mathematics can be.

Born and raised in Wollongong, Virginia Wheway says the University of Wollongong (UOW) was always part of her life.

“My dad was an academic at the University so my two sisters and I would hang out in fluid dynamics labs as kids,” explains Virginia.

Growing up, Virginia dreamed of becoming a vet, but her parents encouraged her to pursue a career in mathematics. She was good at it, the top of her class in high school, but she didn’t see it as a career calling – until her BHP (now BlueScope) cadetship.

“In year 12, I applied for a mathematics BHP cadetship because I knew it was a solid career pathway for local high school students and a transition from school to university. They only accepted three students at the time.

“I started the cadetship and later got accepted into vet science. At that point, I was enjoying what I was doing so much, I decided to stay and do maths.”

Virginia had a busy schedule – she worked four days a week at the steelworks, rotating in different departments, while completing her undergraduate degree at UOW.

“I felt as though I was ahead of my peers at university because I already had that business acumen and experience juggling a business career and degree at the same time. The cadetship exposed me to amazing things so early in my career – I joined young statisticians and professional bodies, spoke at conferences, and travelled a lot. I can’t put a price on the work experience, amazing mentors, and life-long friends who I’m still in touch with today.

“I would take things that I learned at the cadetship and share it with my lecturers at the university. I’d be teaching them from real world problems at work. They were amazed. I was also able to solve problems at work because of my studies. I became a teacher and a student.”

Virginia says the maths and statistics faculty at UOW was like a family to her. She describes it as a caring, encouraging environment with lecturers who were at the top of their field. It was for this reason that Virginia chose to return to UOW for her PhD.

After completing her doctorate in Statistics, Data Mining and Computer Science, Virginia went to work for Boeing’s research division in Seattle. It was here that she had one of the most defining moments of her career.

“A group of us invented an algorithm using black box data from an aircraft to predict whether or not it needed maintenance in real time. This saved delays, cancelations, money, and reduced passenger dissatisfaction. We worked out, and this was back in the early 2000s, that for every minute a 747 aircraft was delayed was $20,000 US dollars. Boeing sold the algorithm to other airlines, including Qantas. I’m really proud of that.”

After Boeing, Virginia worked in the public sector, a consulting firm, and returned to BHP. She then became the Vice President of Data and Analytics at an online luxury furniture store, Koala. Virginia has lead teams of more than 50 analysts across many industries, including transport, mining, manufacturing, and medicine. Virginia says she loves solving challenging problems.

“For me, working across different industries has kept me interested – there’s always a new challenge to solve.”

Virginia is now the Head of Data for the Koala founder's next start-up, MILKRUN. MILKRUN is a rapid grocery delivery service on e-bikes.

“Data is becoming such a hot topic in the world. If organisations can harness data, it’s a huge advantage. My sweet spot is setting up data and analytics teams – and that started at BHP.”

In 2021, the Institute of Analytics Professionals of Australia named Virginia the number two Analytics Leader in the country, but for Virginia her biggest sense of accomplishment comes from mentorship.

“I get pride from mentoring and being invited to speak at events. I want to show young people early on in their careers that as a female in maths this is what I’ve accomplished, and these are all the things you can do.

“I’ve had a lot of amazing mentors – people that gave me a leg up. I want to encourage young women to do maths and see the next generation get the opportunities that I’ve had.”

UOW is still part of Virginia’s life. Virginia guest lectures and was on the advisory committee for the School of Maths and Applied Statistics. She also helped design the data science degree that is now on offer at UOW.

“I wasn’t sure that data and maths was the career I wanted to follow, but now I can’t get enough of it, and I can’t tell people enough how amazing a career is in this. For me, all because I got the start I did back in my late teens.”


Virginia Wheway

Bachelor of Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Statistics

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Statistics/Data Mining/Computer Science

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