Indian-origin mathematician honoured in Australia

May 28th, 2008 - 1:14 pm ICT by admin  

By Neena Bhandari
Sydney, May 28 (IANS) Nalini Joshi, an Australian of Indian origin, has become only the third woman in mathematics to be elected to the prestigious Australian Academy of Sciences (AAS), founded in 1954 by Australian Fellows of the Royal Society of London. Joshi, head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sydney, was made a fellow of AAS in recognition of her life-long achievements in the field of mathematics.

Her mathematical research has helped to describe delicate and precise transitions that occur in many non-linear models of the real world. For example, how a bar of metal that is heated to very high temperatures becomes magnetic, or how solitary waves in deep oceans move far away from their central crests, or how herds of bisons may change from being clumped together in bands to being spread out over a landscape of grassy plains.

Born in Myanmmar to Indian origin grandparents hailing from Gujarat and Punjab, Joshi migrated to Australia in 1971 immediately after the White Australia Policy ended.

The family moved because of ethnic discrimination. “In Myanmmar, despite topping the class, I was never awarded the top prizes. My father, who was a doctor, felt Indians were discriminated against. Like any Indian parent he wanted us to have a good education and so we moved to Australia when I was 12,” says Joshi, who made it to a Selective High School in Sydney and discovered, quite contrary to the situation today, that she was the only person of Indian origin in her class.

“I was always good at maths and was entranced by science, particularly the discoveries of astronomy. At the age of 15, I wanted to be an astronaut, but was told by my careers adviser, ‘That’s a bit unrealistic, dear’. Of course, things have changed drastically since the 1970s for women astronauts,” Joshi told IANS.

“I did know that mathematics would open many doors for other fields of science. But my father wanted me to be a doctor so to please him I applied to study medicine, but on the very first day of enrolment, changed to the Bachelor of Science at Sydney University. My not joining medicine really disappointed my father and he didn’t speak to me for a month,” said Joshi.

She completed the four-year degree with honours in applied mathematics and went on to do her doctorate at Princeton University in the US.

In her honours year in applied mathematics, she was the only girl in her class. “I was teased a lot, but it was in jest and good fun, but Princeton was exceedingly competitive and I found being deliberately left out of important information very discouraging,” Joshi said.

Having children led to an incredibly difficult time for her as a researcher. Joshi says the situation facing many women in high-level sciences and mathematics in Australia is more typically one of neglect than a “macho” culture.

In her earlier career, she encountered “silverback academics” (older dominant males) who ignored the fact that women with children might have had particular needs. “Career progression can be very difficult,” she said.

However, to the many Australian students who decide to drop maths in Class 11 and 12, Joshi says: “You need the analytical skills that mathematics teaches you for many, many fields of study be it science, psychology, economics or business. Being educated in mathematics prepares you for a lifetime of logical thinking. Our mathematics graduates are seduced by banks who want them for their analytical thinking skills. ”

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