It all adds up in working world

Jill Rowbotham  The Australian  April 11, 2012 12:00AM

Isaac Donnelly, who begins his PhD research in July, is working on a reactor project with the Australian Centre for Commercial Mathematics. Picture: Renee Nowytarger Source: The Australian

Isaac Donnelly, who took his science degree with first-class honours in applied mathematics last year, knows the career he wants will require further study.

He begins his doctorate at the University of NSW in July, but until then he is working at the Australian Centre for Commercial Mathematics.

Part of his current job is working with staff at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's OPAL reactor in Sydney.

"They have sections that have to be recalibrated every so often and we are looking to see if we can optimise that," Donnelly says.

"It would mean less potential for exposure for personnel to radiation, less shutdown time and more time for research."

It is precisely the kind of work he wants to do in future years.

"My strength is translating technical maths into real-world applications that are most efficient. And the ACCM is a good spot to do that."

The centre is a spin-off of the ARC's Centre of Excellence in Mathematics and Statistics of Complex Systems, which incorporated five universities and ran for seven years until 2010.

Its former industry projects manager, David Shteinman, a graduate in engineering from UNSW, negotiated for the university to take industry projects into its school of mathematics and statistics.

He seeks out businesses, utilities or government departments that have practical problems and assigns centre staff to devise solutions. Profits go to the school of mathematics, which pays the wages of the six staff.

The centre employs two postgraduates and plans to hire some postdoctoral researchers and a senior researcher later this year. The centre also draws on academics from other parts of the university on a consultative basis.

It's the practical application of maths that has captured Donnelly's imagination.

"For my whole life I have liked (mathematics)," he says. "I just love finding explanations for things; maths explains so much in the world."

He says the secret to attracting more students to maths would be to make the school curriculum more relevant to the real world. "If I tell someone I'm a mathematician they think I sit around adding numbers all day. But people are slowly awakening to how powerful maths actually is in a variety of social situations."