Happy St Patrick’s Day!
In honor of St Patrick’s Day (Lá Fhéile Pádraig), Ireland’s national holiday the next couple of posts will describe the experiences of two of new(ish) and new recruits to MACSI and Ireland.
First up is Dr Cameron Hall a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and Investigator at the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Technology Centre at the University of Limerick
There was a young man from Australia…
Thoughts after a first year in Limerick
There was a young man from Australia
Who painted his bum like a dahlia.
The sketching was fine,
The colour divine;
The scent, alas, was a failure.
In January 2017, I disembarked from a plane after a wonderful summer/Christmas holiday in my home town of Brisbane, between the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast in Australia, and made my way to Limerick, near the centre of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. There had been many jokes from family and friends before I left: some about the weather, some about Ireland in general, and many more about heading to a place that shares its name with the popular verse form illustrated above. But I knew (even before I arrived) that Limerick has much more going for it than just a vague association with poems with dubious innuendos.
I originally did my undergraduate studies and PhD at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane. QUT has a medium-sized mathematical sciences department, with a couple of dozen permanent members of faculty across mathematics and statistics. The research focus at QUT is very much on applied research – the mathematicians and the statisticians at QUT concentrate on doing industrial and interdisciplinary work, and often work with each other on developing and analysing models of real-world problems.
After finishing at QUT, I was a postdoctoral researcher in the Mathematical Institute in the University of Oxford, a much larger department with more than twice as many applied mathematicians as QUT and many pure mathematicians as well. Having spent several years in Oxford, moving to Limerick was going to feel very much like a return to QUT – a smaller department where maths and stats sit together (Statistics in Oxford is in a separate department) and where there is a much stronger emphasis on applied research.
While there are similarities between QUT and Limerick, there are differences as well. Some aspects of academic life in Limerick can be frustrating (why are there no catch-up days to make up for teaching lost to public holidays and other events?!), while others are really liberating (it is wonderful to have an active research manager doing most of the legwork for developing and maintaining relationships with companies). Another noticeable difference is in the types of industries in Ireland, and the associated sorts of research problems that this brings. At QUT, mathematicians have worked on tissue engineering, medical imaging, sugarcane processing, water extraction, and wood drying.
At Limerick, there is a much stronger focus on the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries, alongside work on smart manufacturing, semiconductors, and aluminium refining. There are overlaps in research interests between Limerick and QUT (on lithium batteries, for example) and in both places there is a general enthusiasm for seeking out new problems, often working with small-to-medium enterprises on projects that would never have occurred to a mathematician sitting in isolation.
Another similarity is that both Limerick and QUT (and Oxford even more so!) have long been involved in study groups (MISGs in Australia, ESGIs in Europe), which are week-long workshops where researchers from industry present problems and mathematicians work with them to make progress on resolving them. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first study group in Oxford, and over that time study groups have proved to be an excellent way of exploring problems and finding solutions that are both valuable to industry and that lead to some very interesting mathematics.
Something that I have noticed that Limerick does exceptionally well is follow-up after study groups. Too often, I’ve been to a study group with industry, we’ve got to grips with the industrial problem, come up with some decent ideas, hurriedly written a report (that is often only really comprehensible to mathematicians) and proceeded to get on with our usual hectic schedules. While there have been some noteworthy exceptions, I hadn’t previously noticed much of a culture of actively following up with companies to see how they’re getting on and to investigate whether there is the opportunity to develop new collaborations after the study group. The Limerick model of arranging a one-day or half-day meeting a few months after the study group to see how everything is going is one that it would be good for people to repeat around the world.
All in all, the journey from Brisbane to Oxford to Limerick has been a good one. The first year was a busy one (as any first year in a new place will be), but there is definitely a lot happening in Limerick and many opportunities for good applied mathematical research. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens in the years ahead.