Stepping into the mathematical unknown is a thrilling equation for Canadian-born Dr Sara Herke: it just adds up.
Mathematics is a fascinating field with lots of open questions waiting to be answered. It’s this sense of joy in seeking answers that Dr Herke wants to convey to people intimidated by mathematics.
“I just find it interesting and like doing it, and I’m okay with making mistakes,” she says.
“My proudest moment as a teacher is when students tell me they came into my course feeling properly nervous about the mathematical content but came out feeling more confident and more appreciative of mathematics in general.
“To me, seeing that change in attitude and perceptions, that’s the most rewarding part.”
As a lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Physics, Dr Herke encourages mathematics students to dive deep into mathematics and to also gain foundational knowledge of computer programming and statistics. And as a researcher, she focuses on graph theory, which has applications ranging from transportation networks and biological models, to efficient data storage, which gives insights into optimal networks.
“In particular, we may want to build an efficient transport network with the fewest crossing lines, or a network that guarantees two different paths between certain points.”
The black belt in karate finds the same thrilling precision in pure mathematics as she does in a well-executed kata. It too requires discipline to keep researching questions that are easy to ask, but are tantalisingly difficult to answer.
“It’s challenging to work on these things, and sometimes things don’t go well in your research for a little while, but then you suddenly get a spark, and you move forward,” she says.
“That feeling, when you suddenly make progress, and you’ve figured out something that’s new, that’s just unbeatable.”
Dr Herke says that knowing about mathematics is useful in many disciplines and valuable in the job market.
“Industry is really moving in the direction of needing to analyse big data and use machine learning. At UQ, mathematics students are being given that foundational knowledge as well through courses in operational research, statistics and things that relate exactly to this.”
Mathematics is still regarded by many as a masculine pursuit of study, but from Hypatia in 4th century Greece to pioneering English computer programmer Ada Lovelace, German algebraist Emmy Noether, NASA orbital equations expert Katherine Johnson, and Iranian dynamics and geometry specialist Maryam Mirzakhani, women have always pursued the subject.
“I feel like my journey in maths has been very smooth, and I’ve always had a lot of support,” Dr Herke says.
“I really do owe that to all the female mathematicians who came before me, and I’m really proud of that history.”
Dr Herke says she began her maths journey at nine years of age, but only really consolidated the idea of maths as a true career after finishing her PhD at The University of Queensland.
“I realised, ‘I’m a mathematician’, and that I was developing a career in mathematics,” she says.
“It was not that I knew from an early age that was what I was going for – I just followed what I loved.”
Own the unknowns in mathematics at UQ.