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The theme of International Women’s Day 2024 is ‘Invest in Women’. We speak to three AMSI females who are making waves in the mathematical sciences. This article spotlights  AMSI alumni Georgina Ryan, as she explores what this year’s theme means to her in relation to her career in the mathematical sciences.

This article is part of our International Women’s Day feature series


Image: Georgina Ryan, AMSI alumni. Supplied.


What is your role in the Mathematical Sciences?

I graduated with my Master of Science (Mathematics and Statistics) from the University of Melbourne at the end of 2023 majoring in Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Biology. My research is in continuum mechanics, which is the mathematics of modelling how fluids and solids move and interact. I am heading off to the University of Oxford in October to start my PhD. In the meantime, I am taking a mini gap year working as a tutor at the University of Melbourne, working on writing a paper based on my MSc thesis, and doing some volunteering about STEM advocacy and outreach.


As an AMSI Summer School alumni, how did participating in AMSI programs support your career trajectory?

I attended a summer school subject called ‘Stochastic Transport Modelling’ as part of my MSc, which was about creating agent-based models, primarily in the context of numerically modelling experimental scratch assays which study cell migration. The content of the subject was briefly mentioned in several mathematical biology subjects throughout my degree, but without taking this AMSI Summer School subject I would not have had the chance to fully dive into this specific kind of numerical modelling myself. Developing numerical skills is incredibly important for an applied mathematician, so it was fantastic to get more exposure to this area. I ended up talking about the kinds of programming involved in this subject in several PhD interviews!

Another huge benefit of attending the Summer School was the fact that it allowed me to spread out my course load in my final year of my MSc. It meant I could essentially devote an entire extra subject’s worth of study time in the following semester towards my thesis, which proved essential to being able to maintain a healthy work-life balance. When reflecting on my degree, attending the AMSI Summer School was one of the best decisions I made.


Why do you believe it is important for gender equality to be a priority in the mathematical sciences industry?

I believe gender equality should be a top priority for the mathematical sciences for a few reasons, aside from the fact that gender is not a determinant of mathematical ability and therefore that gender equality in the mathematical sciences industry is the fair and just outcome we should strive for. Firstly, within research mathematics, increasing the diversity of lived experiences involved in mathematical research results in an ever-increasing number of approaches and perspectives of a problem.

Mathematics is fundamentally a collaborative exercise, and if you are only collaborating with people who think in the same way as you, the potential for exciting insights from that collaboration is inherently limited. Also, mathematicians, like any scientists, want people to care about their work. Making this work accessible and inviting to people of all genders only increases its potential impact. Secondly, mathematical literacy is a core skill to be able to engage with pressing societal issues and to have confidence in navigating daily life. Look at any newspaper article about the economy or climate change and you are faced with graphs and statistics.

Without strong mathematical literacy skills, it is so easy for someone to be deliberately mislead by how data is presented. Consider personal finances – they can be incredibly complicated at the best of times, but they are even more confusing if you never understood compound interest calculations in high school. It should be the utmost priority of the mathematical sciences industry that women and gender diverse people feel enthusiastic about the prospect of studying maths subjects through at least the end of high school so that our society is able to thrive.


You recently got accepted into the University of Oxford to study a Doctor of Philosophy (Mathematics). What are you hoping to achieve with your overseas study?

My end goal is to be an academic, focusing my research on solving interdisciplinary continuum mechanics problems for experimentalists and industry experts. I also hope to spend a significant portion of my time engaging in outreach and advocacy for both the importance of mathematics broadly, and specifically focusing on improving the conditions for underrepresented groups in mathematics.

Through my overseas study, I am excited to get to learn and research in environment where continuum mechanics is both an incredibly active and longstanding field. Universities in Australia often only have a handful of continuum mechanics researchers in their mathematics school, whereas the Oxford Mathematical Institute has a whole floor dedicated to continuum mechanics research as well as an experimental laboratory in the basement.

My DPhil (the Oxford term for a PhD) will be industry focused, so I will work with an industry partner to determine my project once I arrive in the UK. One of the big skills I hope to learn is how to best communicate with external partners when solving maths problems, because I believe the work of an applied mathematician is most valuable when it can be successfully actioned in the real world.

My prospective supervisor is quite passionate about outreach, so I hope to learn a lot about engaging the public with mathematics. There is a huge culture of maths communication in the UK (think Numberphile, Matt Parker, Hannah Fry, Katie Steckles etc.) so I hope to soak up as much maths outreach know-how as I can!


What is some advice you would give to fellow young mathematicians interested in taking their studies abroad?

The main advice I’d give to those thinking about completing a Masters or PhD overseas is to start thinking about the possibility as early as you can and to plan accordingly. I’ve always known that I wanted to study in the UK at some point, so working towards going overseas for my PhD was my top priority during my Masters.

Starting early means that you can focus on two key things: references and funding. Applying to any overseas PhD program requires detailed reference letters that can truly speak to who you are as a student, researcher and as a person. A reference given by a professor who has never seen you in class won’t cut it, even if you got top marks. For my Oxford application, I had to provide 3 academic references. The most important thing I did throughout my MSc was consistently attending consultation hours for all my classes so that 1. I understood all the content well and 2. so that my lecturers had a good sense of who I was and were therefore incredibly supportive of me when I asked for references down the line. Your references truly make or break your application.

Secondly, working to secure funding early is a huge consideration for PhD programs in the UK. There have been a lot of funding cuts recently for UK PhDs, so spots are more competitive than ever, and the funding model is quite different to that in Australia or in the US. Knowing this, I applied (and thankfully was successful in getting!) a 2024 John Monash Scholarship, which guaranteed me funding for 3 years of my PhD anywhere in the world. This was a huge boon on my resume. It also relieved a lot of stress because I knew that as soon as I got my acceptances, I would be able to go to whichever university I wanted instead of having to endure an agonising wait to hear about funding results. (In the Oxbridge system, it is common for people to wait months post-acceptance before finding out whether or not they have funding!)


Any pieces of advise to share with female and non-binary people studying maths?

As a piece of specific advice to women and non-binary people studying maths, the most important lesson I took away from my undergrad and MSc was to not be afraid of “looking stupid” in a class. You are there to learn, and (as hard as it sometimes is) you need to ensure that you prioritise giving yourself the best possible learning opportunities over worrying about whether you are doing a “good job” being a “representative” for your gender in a male-dominated field.

It took me years to build up the confidence to go to lecturer consultations and to continue asking questions until I felt I made progress in my understanding. Once I did, my marks instantly shot up and I was much more confident in my knowledge. It was only then that I seriously considered that I could be a mathematician, and now as a result I get to live out my childhood dream of studying at Oxford!

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