Kate's quest: maximum impact from maths

There’s nothing that Professor Kate Smith-Miles, outgoing head of the School of Mathematics at Monash, likes more than solving a good mathematical puzzle.

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As a schoolgirl she loved coming up with the right answers in maths class, so much so that she decided to become a mathematician even though no one could really tell her what one did.

As a PhD student working with the CSIRO she developed new mathematical techniques to solve specific real-world problems. She later enlisted mathematical solutions throughout her 18 years as an academic in engineering, information technology and mathematical sciences.

Now Kate’s extending her passion for problem-solving using maths on a grander scale; she’s establishing a new centre at Monash devoted to it. 

The centre, MAXIMA, which she is heading, and which was launched recently, will pool the talents of people with strong mathematical backgrounds and a proven track record in interdisciplinary collaboration to use maths to come up with solutions to practical problems.

MAXIMA draws on people across the university such as statisticians and mathematically trained academics in engineering, econometrics and IT. Kate is also recruiting new mathematical talent to Monash. Her eye is cast on mathematicians worldwide with an ability to work across disciplines.

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“MAXIMA is a one-stop shop where people can go to access mathematical minds,” she says. “We’re preparing for the collaborative opportunities we know are out there.”

Kate realised the need for MAXIMA after being approached by researchers working elsewhere at Monash who wanted her help with problems. These included stem cell researchers, people working on the Monash bionic vision team, in psychology, physiology, and in regenerative medicine. She says these requests, combined with numerous industry projects, meant she quickly reached capacity. She realised the need to expand the team.

The centre will have four pillars that will make it unique in Australia; research, training, a consulting service, and an outreach component to inform teachers, students, parents and others about the impact of mathematics.

The outreach component is important as little is known in the community about mathematicians, says Kate. She’s found that even senior maths teachers at schools are often unaware of, then amazed at, the long list of things that mathematicians do. “Who schedules traffic lights? Who forecasts the weather? Who advises which stocks an investment firm should buy and sell?” She sees part of her role as being able to inspire young people about the careers that are underpinned by mathematics.

Kate has impressive credentials for the role.  
She has been awarded $1.75 million in competitive grants over the years, including eleven Australian Research Council grants and industry awards, and won the Australian Mathematical Society’s Medal in 2010 for distinguished research. She has held full professorships in three disciplines (IT, engineering and mathematics), and has acted as a consultant to industry in the areas of optimization, data mining, and intelligent systems.

Kate also enjoys helping others with their research. She has supervised 20 PhD students to completion, and mentored many junior colleagues.

“I discovered years ago that I enjoyed helping other people do research as much as I enjoyed doing research myself,” she says. “When someone I have mentored achieves success, I find that very rewarding.” She is looking forward to mentoring many more mathematical minds to have impact with their mathematics.