CSIRO: Mathematical firepower (and cash) key to solving computing problems

New CSIRO maths chief Dr Louise Ryan wants more money for maths-based research.

Dr Louise Ryan, Chief of CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences.

Dr Louise Ryan, Chief of CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences.

Harvard Professor Dr Louise Ryan, newly appointed Chief of Mathematical and Information Sciences at the CSIRO, will use her new role to champion increased funding for the mathematical sciences in Australia, which she says are essential for the development of computer-based research across the board.

"In recent years, funding has been cut to support the quantitative sciences. And I think it's important to have a voice and say 'hey, this is important'," she said. "This is critical, it's fundamental, it underlies every other field of science and you can't cut corners by cutting funding for mathematical research and training."

A former Chair of Biostatistics at the prestigious Harvard University in Boston, Dr. Ryan will now oversee mathematical and statistical scientists at the CSIRO working on applications ranging from agriculture, light metal production, and environmental modelling to genetics, supercomputing, financial risk and transport logistics.

Her division provides mathematical and statistical modelling to support all kinds of important national projects, including the ambitious "Square Kilometre Array", a massive radio telescope that aims to discover more about the origins of the universe, widely believed to have been brought about by the "Big Bang". According to Dr. Ryan, this is a project "which involves incredible amounts of data-crunching and information synthesis and processing".

Other parts of her division focus on mathematical techniques in the area of computational fluid dynamics, a branch of science involving the assessment of water-related risks that works by using computers to simulate what would happen if, for example, a dam were to break or an unusually large wave were to strike one of the country's off-shore oil rigs.

"So you need lots of very sophisticated mathematical, quantitative techniques to characterise these situations and then you need the very sophisticated computing platforms to be able to run these simulations and see what happens under these varying scenarios.

"We also have other people who are looking at complex genomics data trying to understand which parts of the millions of locations on the human genome might be the ones that make people susceptible to getting, say, colon cancer or certain kinds of disease."

Dr. Ryan says her division provides the mathematical firepower required to solve all of these problems: "That's what my whole division is about, and my job is to provide the scientific leadership for the division as a whole. Also, I see my job as really trying to elevate knowledge about and appreciation of the importance for the mathematical and statistical sciences in Australia.

“If you don't have those really strong underpinnings in the mathematical, statistical and quantitative sciences, you can't get to the applied answers that you need."

According to Dr. Ryan, dedicating more money to the development of advanced computing technology is one of the key ways Australia can try to keep up with the demands of modern science.

"Science is often just inundated with massive amounts of information. So in order to be able to synthesize that information -- to pull it all together and start to see the patterns and figure out what it's really saying, you need very advanced computational techniques.

“The ability to transmit and gather information is just changing at an exponential rate. And so our statistical and mathematical fields have to evolve to be able to handle that data and that's where that very advanced computing comes in."

Ryan believes the challenge for Australia is to maintain a cutting-edge professional environment so as to encourage young, talented Australian scientists to stay and work here rather than seek out greener pastures overseas. No stranger to the so-called "brain-drain" herself, having spent 29 years in the United States, Ryan says the continued development of these sophisticated computing technologies is essential if Australia wants to keep pace with the rest of the developed world.

"If Australia doesn't have top world-class level statisticians, mathematicians and computer scientists we're going to be left behind in terms of the scientific arena; it's absolutely essential for us to be a world-class scientific nation."

Based in North Ryde, Sydney, Dr Ryan took up her new role with the CSIRO a few weeks ago. She will remain on the Harvard faculty as an Adjunct Professor of Biostatistics.

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