Welcome to Pitch Your PhD – Shownotes

Season 1, Episode 8

Problem Solving Maths with Dr Alex Antic

Dr Alex Antic is a trusted and experienced Data Science & AI Leader, Consultant, Advisor, and a highly sought Speaker & Trainer. On this episode of Pitch Your PhD, he spoke with Catherine on how closely embedded math is to finding the solutions to the world’s complex problem

I can’t think of many ways math isn’t being used at all (in solving world problems) … I think in some way, even in a loose way, it actually is being used without us necessarily knowing it

Alex had found his love for mathematics early on in his life, as early as Year 9 …. Today, with 18+ years of post PhD experience and numerous expertise in areas including Advanced Analytics, Machine Learning and AI, Alex continued to use his expertise in maths in untangling many complex problems

This is a “kind of, sort of, vaguely close” copy of the words from this episode.

IT IS NOT 100% accurate.  We are very sorry if we have spelt something completely incorrectly.  If it means a lot to you to have it corrected, email us at mel@ramaley.media

PYP – Dr Alex Antic

[00:00:00] Catherine: Hello and welcome to pitch your PhD today on pitch your PhD. I’m speaking with Dr. Alex Antic. Growing up in Sydney, Alex was a studious student at school. He worked hard, enjoyed the challenges, but he especially loved reading and learning about the world around him. In year nine, Alex discovered that maths really started clicking and making sense to him.

[00:00:23] It was a pivot in his life, this realization and what he didn’t know quite what he wanted to do. He followed his passion into wanting to know more straight into university and when making his selection, he chose a university that was one of the few at the time to offer double degrees in maths and computing. This was followed swiftly by first class honors in pure mathematics and constantly driving him was his passion and determination to know more, to go deeper still down that rabbit hole.

[00:00:51] welcome Alex, how are you?

[00:00:53] Alex: I’m doing well.

[00:00:54] Thank you very much absolute pleasure to speaking to you today.

[00:00:56] Catherine: Great to have you today. Because it’s very rare that I get to really [00:01:00] geek out with someone about something like maths and data science.

[00:01:02] So how is it down the rabbit hole at the moment in terms of maths and data

[00:01:06] Alex: It’s a fascinating place to be. Somewhere where a lot of people want to be joining me. I think given how hot data science is these days, I recommend everyone should journey down that hole

[00:01:15] Catherine: My mom mentioned to me at the start of the pandemic. Oh, we’ve got exponential growth Cath and I’m like, mom, what’s exponential growth.

[00:01:23] Alex: Excellent. Great

[00:01:24] Catherine: Everyone has become a data scientist during this pandemic.

[00:01:27] Alex: I think so. I think they finally realized that numbers do reveal a more, a lot more than you’d realize when you are a bit naive to their existence day-to-day and now we were hanging on those numbers everyday to see what they’re doing. It’s great to see that people are learning and appreciating mathematics more than they maybe once were.

Started loving numbers

[00:01:43] Catherine: So let’s go back to when you first started to appreciate mathematics. When was it that you realized that you liked to speak the language of numbers?

[00:01:50] Alex: I think it was at a young age that I realized that I enjoyed thinking, using the language of mathematics. In terms of speaking, that was probably later in my career when I first started [00:02:00] working in industry and having to communicate results, findings, questions to my peers, senior executives, and the like, and I realized that sometimes I felt like my colleagues and I were speaking a different language and that it was imperative for us to, to make sure that when we were speaking to people who weren’t as technically savvy, that we needed to really drop the jargon and to learn to speak in a way that business would understand what we were trying to talk about. So there’s really, I learnt from a I guess, an early point in my career that you have to traverse that bridge, that gap often, and that being able to do so in a practical, pragmatic way is really what leads to success, I think, as a data scientist or anyone working with data and analytics,

[00:02:36]  Unless you’re an academic and just focusing really on the technical aspects. I think it’s absolutely fundamental to be able to, translate, your understanding and your knowledge into a way that others can also understand clearly.

From Honors to PhD

[00:02:47] Catherine: I So when it came to finding your path, you obviously fell in love with maths in a huge way. So when you came to looking at going on and doing a PhD after you did your honors, which is what I did. I went straight from honors to PhD as well.

[00:02:58] was it that somebody [00:03:00] approached you? Was it that there was a subject that you wanted to study? You sought it out. How did you go from honors to PhD and make that leap?

[00:03:06] Alex: Yeah. Sure I can remember it to this day. So I was in a staff room with one of my colleagues who are discussing our honors projects. And then we started to talk about, you know, what we plan to do the following year. And we both wanted to pursue PhDs. And I mentioned to him, look, I’m thinking of, you know, moving to the U S and maybe doing a PhD there.

[00:03:22] I’m not sure if I wanted to. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue one in pure or applied maths, I enjoyed both and then the professor ended up being my PhD supervisor overheard this chat, and he said, actually, I was just made aware this morning of a inaugural scholarship that CSIRO will be offering for the first time and one of these available in the country.

[00:03:38] It’s a really interesting topic, you know? do you want to hear more? and then I heard more about that. The rest is history. The field of agriculture has always been of interest to me, given some of my family comes from an agricultural background. so I thought this things seems like a great way to try and create impact with mathematics.

[00:03:52] so I couldn’t say no and then within weeks I’d been accepted for the scholarship, even though it wasn’t meant to commence for, you know, six months down the track. [00:04:00] But I felt like it was nice. This is kind of a secure way to have, the next few years mapped out, which was something I didn’t expect that day.

Thesis Title

[00:04:06] Catherine: So tell us what was the title of your thesis?

[00:04:09] Alex: I believe it was the mathematical modeling of stored grain micro-climates. I remember having two working titles. I think that’s the one I landed on, but I haven’t picked up a copy of my thesis since I completed 18

[00:04:20] Catherine: Of mine somewhere on a bookshelf in our house. And

[00:04:22] Alex: I have it buried in a bookshelf. I do, but I very rarely glance anywhere in that direction.

PhD Thesis

[00:04:26] Catherine: I remember someone saying to me once about my PhD, can you explain it to your grandmother? Because if you can explain it to your grandmother, then you actually really know it. Can you explain your PhD to your grandmother or to us? What was your PhD about? Tell us about your thesis

[00:04:40] Alex: sure. So that’s a long time ago now, but let me see what I can recall. Um, it involved the mathematical modeling well, grain silos and grain bulks. And really the driver was that Australia produces a lot of grain and we export most of our grain to other countries around the world. And we had issues at times that when we first loaded a lot of these grain onto a ship, it had, you know, say [00:05:00] miniscule elements or, infestations of various insects.

[00:05:03] And that’s fine, the purchase, that’s happy with that to a point, but if you promise them a certain level of infestation by the time it arrives in the airport. If those numbers have doubled or tripled or grown exponentially, then you have a problem, because they haven’t got what they’ve paid for.

[00:05:15] So to combat that there were a lot of chemical disinfestation methods available at the time. Which were effective yet, there was a global push to really reduce our dependence on the use of chemicals to disinfect grain box and other food produce given the potential negative effects on us as consumers and other environmental impacts.

[00:05:32] the thesis really focused on can we use other techniques apart from chemicals to try and, reduce the numbers of infestations of these insects, infestations in grain box and how can we do that. So the biologists and chemists to CSIRO who funded my scholarship, who first started trying to answer this question, realized that at different times of the day, there’s insects were moving to different parts of a grain box.

[00:05:51] So when it was getting too hot in the central part of a grain box, they were moving to the peripheral regions and they thought, how can we really use that information? We can’t really localize the chemical disinfestation [00:06:00] methods we’re using. And also we want to limit how many chemicals were used.

[00:06:02] So what else can we do? And then they started to think about, Well maybe we could somehow use heat. Maybe we could just heat the peripheral regions, such that to a degree that’s high enough to kill the insects, but not damage the grain. So they started trying to drop thermocouple devices in there to measure the difference in heat between the grain and the surrounding.

[00:06:19] And I quickly realized that at a minuscule level, the thermocouple devices are too large, so we can’t really measure that. So what’s the next best thing. How about mathematical modeling? That’s something that we can use for interpolation, extrapolation, and trying to get a sense of what’s happening.

[00:06:33] That’s when I walked into the picture and started looking at mathematical techniques that can try and give us an idea of what are the temperatures and moisture content and other metrics we’re looking at of the grain and the surrounding air at certain times of the day to try and then predict where would the insects be moving at certain points?

[00:06:49] And then how can we then localize heat treatment methods such as microwave heating or other devices to only disinfest those portions, that are infested at the time. So that was really what my PhD [00:07:00] involved, trying to come up with models that would predict that and that they could then use to come up with novel approaches to solve this complex problem.

[00:07:08] Catherine: Considering we know now that we throw away about 30% of all the food we produce, any method that can sa ve grains that we actually spent all of this time and effort growing is fantastic. So do you know if this work has continued, what’s happened since you produced your thesis? Is it still talked about today?

[00:07:25] Alex: From what I heard he was being used. And they were looking at trying to develop a lot of Financially practical methods that farmers could use on their end, as opposed to when it arrives at a port and this, you know, large scale use. So believe that it was being used and implemented to solve this problem.

[00:07:40] I haven’t kept up for a while, so I’ll be having a bit Lex and don’t know how much it’s being used today. but it was, at least very helpful to try and help them understand, the applications beyond just heat, this infestation. Maybe there were other methods they wanted to use to try and get a better, more granular view of what’s happening to the grain, no pun intended there.

[00:07:56] Um, and at a certain point to try and predict other [00:08:00] qualities of the grain that you may want to understand such as moisture content and looking at spoilage through mold and others things

[00:08:05] Catherine: I could make a joke about the lesser of two weevils, if you really want to start cracking agriculture jokes.

Life after PhD

[00:08:12] Catherine: So how did you make that smooth transition from the PhD? Did you do a postdoc? Did you go into industry? What happened after you finished?

[00:08:18] Alex: I started a post-doc actually, looking at, Diffusion of, medicines within the human stomach, looking at trying to predict efficacy of various medications and how they, are absorbed by the body. And that was really, really cool. And then there were few other, postdocs I’d applied for in other universities around the country and around the world, which I’d been accepted for. And I was thinking about that.

[00:08:36] And I, once again, another pivotal point I was having a discussion with, my professor who I taught some subjects for. And his words to me were you can come back any time to be an academic. I think you should go out in the real world and see how, you know, how you can possibly apply all this. Um, was haunted me for many years, down the track, but that pretty much led me to think, maybe I should consider moving out into industry. I’d been in academia for getting close to a decade, having done [00:09:00] the double degree and you know, the extra studies and having been a postdoc for a short while and teaching.

[00:09:04] And I thought, you know, maybe it’s time to see what’s in the other side. See if the grass really is greener. and then I stepped out for many years into industry and government before coming back eventually, to be an academic, which I’ve recently left again.

Navigating life options

[00:09:16] Catherine: So you got picked by a professor overhearing you talking about something, you’ve got access to this scholarship. You then got access to a postdoc. So you’ve had a lot of choice in your career. do you put any of this back to sort of like being in the right place at the right time or just asking the right questions? Is there something from your PhD journey that you think has taught you how to navigate some of these changes?

[00:09:39] Alex: Luck has a lot to do with it. I think anyone who’s been successful in any way. I mean, not that I’m saying my career’s been successful, but whatever success people have, I think luck is a huge component. But the important thing that you learn early on in your studies, both undergrad and post-grad is to, I think be open to new opportunities, to always have this thirst and passion for learning and asking questions.

[00:09:58] And that’s something I’ve always [00:10:00] instilled in my mentees and my staff, whenever I try and share knowledge and pills of wisdom, I think it’s imperative to learn, how to learn. Of course, as we all know as what university teaches us, but beyond that is to really be open to asking questions and speaking to people about different ideas and not, being, too narrow minded with how you think your career may progress.

[00:10:17] I think that’s a good thing of a PhD because once you commence you have no idea where really what you’re going to end up, you might have a notion of where it might take you, but you really don’t know the path. It’s just so exciting to be on. I think that you just don’t know where it’s going to lead you.

[00:10:29] So I recommend to anyone undertaking a PhD is to, is to be open to any new opportunities that come your way either during or post that PhD.

Where PhD can take you

[00:10:37] Catherine: So looking back now at the pathway that you’ve taken, is there any way that you could be sat doing what you’re doing now? If you had not got a PhD.

[00:10:45] Alex: I can’t imagine in my case. No, no, it’s, set me up very well for a career in data science.  it’s been extremely helpful in a number of fronts. one direct way is a lot of the p rojects I tend to work with and the staff and teams are built up tend to have PhDs themselves. And [00:11:00] part of that is because a lot of the work I do is very much research focused.

[00:11:03] So people who have, been through it, who have the ability to go deep in research and be quite self reliance in that regard, are very important with some of the work I do. you obviously don’t need to have a PhD to become a great data scientist, but with some projects, it definitely is helpful

[00:11:16] having it as also led to opportunities. I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise because I had a competitive advantage having the PhD, the title associated with myself relative to other candidates who may be, who didn’t have that. So,

[00:11:27] Catherine: tell us about those. Tell us about a time where you think actually the PhD was the clincher

[00:11:31] Alex:  I think there’ll be a number of times when people have mentioned that, you know, it’s great to have you on board for this, to lead this project or to work with us, given that you have a PhD, because you’ll hopefully be able to understand the technicalities of our problems better than someone who doesn’t.

[00:11:43] I mean, it’s not necessarily always true, but, it has helped at times, definitely to work on some complexities, especially in my early career, one of my first roles was working as a quantitative analyst in investment banking in our team. We all had PhDs, even our manager and he was hands-on coding like we were everyday.

[00:11:58] So for us, it almost [00:12:00] felt like a second PhD with what we were doing. It was technically the most challenging role I’ve ever had, but also in many, many ways rewarding. So without the PhD, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity, which is, a fantastic one to have. And also having a returning to academia few years ago, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without the PhD, as we both know, that’s fundamental to becoming an academic.

[00:12:18] So. And there’s probably many other pivotal points throughout, but I really don’t believe I could be where I am today with, without having done the PhD, especially one in mathematics, which I think was beneficial to a number of roles I’ve had in my career.

[00:12:29] Catherine: I think if you want to have a guaranteed job for life being good at math is probably a great way to start.

[00:12:35] Alex: I think it does help in many ways, people, even to these days, tend to very, very much underestimate the benefit of having studied mathematics formally. I don’t think many of them, appreciate not only the practical elements from a logic numeracy standpoint, but also I still very much see mathematics in a romantic way in terms of an art and a language  and a science and artistic and, other aspects of it.

[00:12:57] I think help better formulate and work with [00:13:00] abstract notions that you see often in reality questions, aren’t always formulate in the best way. You’re constantly trying to solve problems and they can be very messy problems to solve. And I think having studied mathematics and the rigor of it, both on the pure and applied side has really helped me face some complex challenges throughout my career.

[00:13:17] And it’s something I’m always passionate about sharing with others the beauty of math, but also the practicality of studying it in some capacity.

Current Projects

[00:13:23] Catherine: So, Tell us some of the things you’re working on. do you still apply it to agricultural issues? Or what kind of projects are you applying maths to at the moment that’s kind of, you sit there and pinch yourself and go, God, I can’t believe I’m even thinking about the maths on this situation.

[00:13:35] Alex: The most direct would probably be in the space of cryptography, where that’s, you know, it’s all fundamentally based on mathematics and elliptic curves and, all these different cryptographic functions and prime numbers, polynomials, et cetera. And that’s in relation to looking at privacy enhancing technologies.

[00:13:54] So looking at secure sharing of information between organizations, for instance, also beyond that, being able to [00:14:00] do machine learning on top of encrypted data, which up until recently, it wasn’t actually practically feasible and there’s huge applications for that. So one project that I helped launch with a government agency I’ve worked for in the past.

[00:14:11] Absolutely new initiative in this country looking at how do you improve the security of our financial system in a way that, ensures Privacy and sensitivity of people’s personal information, but also allows you to surface risk and try and surface financial crime, money laundering, terrorism, financing, and other things like that.

[00:14:29] So looking at some of the fundamentals behind that, that was all very much mathematics. So to understand that I, to get my hands dirty. You know, try shake off some of the rusts from having had to do much very in depth mathematics for a long time. And then also recently when I was lecturing some subjects and committing some courses at uni, once again, to be able to explain it to the students, I needed to make sure I understood it very well myself.

[00:14:50] So once again, I had to go go a bit deeper than I normally would have given that most of my time in the preceding years had been spent on leading and managing teams and not doing so much of the work hands-on.

Solving world problem with Maths

[00:15:01] [00:15:00]

[00:15:01] Catherine: So if there was one problem in the world that you think maths could probably solve and it’s not being dealt with properly, what would that problem?

[00:15:09] Alex: I’d like to think that mass can solve most problems these days. I think. In all fairness, I think it is being used in some capacity to solve most problems that people are tackling. I think in one way or one guy’s or another it’s actually being used. I can’t think of many ways math isn’t being used  at all, but it should be maybe, you know, of some, but I can’t really think of any, I think in some way, even in a loose way, it actually is being used without us necessarily knowing it.

[00:15:36] Catherine: I mean the obvious one that I’m thinking about at the moment, it’s like digital earth models and even some of the, you know spatial transcriptomics work that coming out on a molecular level that people like ANU doing at the John Curtin Research Medical School, you know, how do you take a single cell and look at how the DNA is becoming RNA and actually the transcriptomics of that from a single cell.

[00:15:56] And then how do you build that into a model of the eye and then into a digital twin of a [00:16:00] person? And one of the things for me that’s really floating my boat at the moment is this idea of the Internet of Bodies, rather than The Internet of things. And how could we possibly ever have, a digital twin of ourselves in terms of health, like the data behind that, the dynamicism of the data behind that, for me just blows my mind.

[00:16:17] Alex: Would it be possible without mathematics?

[00:16:19] Catherine: It would not be possible without mathematics. And I suppose this is the thing, we know that we’re not getting as many students into maths in terms of the STEM subjects. It’s not the most popular one, particularly with girls and I don’t know why, what can we do to fix it? Is there a way in which we could attract younger people that are maybe worrying about the world, worrying about climate change and they want to do something well, maths actually studying maths is how we’re going to get through this? What would we say? How do we fix it?

[00:16:42] Alex: It’s a problem that has been on my mind for many years now. And it does concern me that I feel like in many ways, we’re definitely not preparing, I guess, Australia let alone the world enough to face a lot of these oncoming challenges, especially in relation to AI, where we need people who are empowered with mathematics and, related, [00:17:00] subjects of course in computing, et cetera.

[00:17:01] But mathematics is fundamental to a lot of them. I think one, thing that starting at a younger age and trying to convince a lot of students that if they’re struggling with learning mathematics, that there’s support available. Because from what I’ve seen from my time when I was doing a lot of tutoring earlier on is that many students often feel bad.

[00:17:18] If they’re struggling with it, they feel like they’re doing something wrong. It becomes too difficult and they lose interest. I think we really need to find better ways of supporting different students who learn at different paces and who maybe don’t think, in the language of maths like some of us that are like myself or lucky to do and can see things mathematically much easier than others.

[00:17:34] So I think we need better support structures to, say, that’s fine. You don’t have to

[00:17:38] be as comfortable with mathematics like I’m not as comfortable with certain languages that other people may be for instance, or other topics, but you can get through and you can develop enough of an understanding to make you feel comfortable and empowered to face the world’s, you know, even simple things like understanding when you know, questionable statistics are thrown at you to try and convince you of something to have some sort of data literacy and an analytics literacy.

[00:17:59] [00:18:00] And then beyond that, I think it’s people such as you and I, spending time to speak to younger folk and say, this is how we’re using our knowledge of mathematics and computing and other STEM subjects to make a difference. And here are other people who’ve done the same and achieved great success. And have you thought about this career? You know, what are your interests? How can we maybe link your interests to the starting of maths and computing and, you know, engineering or whatever to support that maybe you haven’t realized there’s a connection there and helping people understand that transferable skills that you develop by studying mathematics will see you through many careers that you won’t always see that connection. It’s people that have been through that going back and speaking, sharing knowledge, I think is actually fundamental. So that sort of students who are thinking don’t feel alone, they think, okay, there are options here that I haven’t considered.

[00:18:41] Someone’s taken an interest in me wants to share their career with me. And maybe mentorship is a good way to do that so they can bounce ideas off you. I didn’t have that at a younger age. I kind of pursued maths, not having anyone who’d gone into it. My father had studied engineering. So he of course had quite a bit of math knowledge, but I hadn’t known anyone who actually looked at mathematics and truly understood it [00:19:00] and was able to give me a sense of what was, uh, lay ahead of me, it was more just, my passion just drove me forward.

[00:19:04] but I think many students could benefit from having someone help them out, answer questions and give them some suggestions.

Not enough young people studying maths

[00:19:09] Catherine: Do you feel like, you know, we’re actually going to be looking at being in trouble as Australians. If we don’t have more people studying mathematics,

[00:19:17] Alex: Yeah. I completely agree. there’s no way that we’re going to train enough future AI practitioners if we don’t have enough young folks coming through with a decent understanding of mathematics and an interest in wanting to learn it and pursue it, even at undergrad level, let alone at a post-graduate level.

[00:19:32] It’s a huge challenge that we face. I think it’s, it’s something that troubles me often. And I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to that, which is unfortunate. It’s it is a big problem. I think we might need more government support to, you know, have programs in place that help address many issues, not just that specific, but also, diversity and inclusion within that field.

[00:19:49] There’s definitely isn’t enough of that. And when we start talking about notions of responsible AI ethical use of AI, we definitely need diversity and inclusion to help. Combat some of the issues around bias morality and [00:20:00] other problems that we face. So there are so many complexities there.

[00:20:03] I mean, I wish I knew what the answers were, but hopefully I can play a small part by trying to instill the passion I have when I’m speaking to others, either through mentoring or teaching or, talks that I give. So I think it would just need many more people help with that fight..

Inspiring people

[00:20:16] Catherine: I was about to ask you, who was your guiding light, then your lighthouse through all of this, obviously you’ve inherited some of your dad’s mental prowess when it comes to organizing systems, as we know, engineers are born, not trained. So, you know, some of your dad’s maths knowledge is obviously in your genetics somewhere, and then that wonderful, accidental overhearing by that professor.

[00:20:33] But who else has inspired you through your, undergraduate, PhD and then further career path? like? There’s a few people I want to be when I grow up. I’m not going to name the puppies, but I’m wondering, do you have anyone in your career?

[00:20:44] Alex: Early on in my studies, it was. The great mathematicians. People who’ve come up with some fantastic solutions and theories, you know, all the greats that we could rattle off today, but there’s no point really for digging up things all names but there’s just, those were, I think that that was just really inspirational.

[00:20:57] Not that I ever thought I could achieve that or I’ll get to that [00:21:00] height of course, but it was more like, they were able to go really deep and make some fundamental discoveries and, and people like Einstein and Richard Feynman especially Feynman who could write about a lot of the stuff he was doing.

[00:21:09] These lectures were fantastic to seeing his passion and the way he could teach and translate this material. I think he’s one of the key ones, almost all my studied mathematical physics for that reason. But I ended up doing quite a bit of physics in my PhD anyway to make up for that. So that was really inspirational.

[00:21:22] But beyond that, yeah. It was just seeing people who had studied that and had careers that they felt were rewarding and they were making some sort of difference. So it wasn’t anyone specific or famous, just people I’d come across and hear about their journey and think, okay, they’ve had a similar path to me and now they’re doing something that is giving value back to society is making a difference.

[00:21:39] And then I thought that is really cool. And it’s something that, I’d like to do. I didn’t, I never thought I could ever become wealthy from, having studied it, but I thought, you know, I could have a wealth of knowledge, which was much more important. And then, some fellow colleagues who, who maybe studying a PhD, part-time working, they’d families thinking, wow, how can you juggle all that?

[00:21:54] Like, that was really inspirational to me knowing people that, that did that. I felt like I did the easy way. Just going [00:22:00] through from undergrad to post-grad versus people that came back as a mature students, you know, that’s just phenomenal that they can be so dedicated. And that’s something the PhD, I think teaches you, teaches you grit.

[00:22:09] and just being focused, to persevere on complex problems. That’s something that I’ve tried to carry through for the rest of my career.

PhD challenge

[00:22:16] Catherine: So if we think about, I’m just going to drag you right back to your PhD experience again, what could have been done better for you during your PhD? Where were the obstacles or the challenges during your PhD?

[00:22:27] Alex: I think something that many PhD students would understand is this notion of feeling alone at times, because you’re going deep into one particular area. And really, at least in my case, there were no other colleagues, other students who were studying that particular area in a general sense, let alone in the specific part I was looking at So I think having a support network would be really important would have been helpful. having some sort of guidance around from people who had been through PhDs. I know some universities that have programs and came later that I’d heard of where they had support for anyone undertaking a PhD. This is kind of how you structure your thesis. This is [00:23:00] what you can expect in the coming years. I felt like I had almost none of that. So I had no idea where he was going to take me. So, many times I do feel quite alone, which was challenging. Definitely. And if you don’t have access to your supervisor because they’re traveling and they’re busy with other commitments, as in my case, it was just difficult sometimes.

[00:23:17] To get some guidance when you need it, you know, that’s no, Through no fault of theirs. So just the practicality of it. I think having some sort support structure is, very helpful. One thing that I’ve come across since then, which I wish existed before was a blog by one of our colleagues at the ANU, the thesis whisperer, Inger Mewburn.

[00:23:33] I think that’s just gold, what she shares. So I think any Who’s contemplating going through a PhD. I think definitely check out her blog. That that is, I think, incredibly insightful and provides support. So you don’t feel so alone and like you’re floating. when I think you just want to feel grounded and like you’re making some sort of difference in making progress.

PhD rewarding experience

[00:23:52] Catherine: Hmm. I relate to everything that you just said. So rather than thinking about that, have a throwback to your PhD memories. What were times where [00:24:00] you really thought this is it I’m in the flow. This is the best feeling in the world. I’m so glad that I started this PhD journey. Tell us about some of the most rewarding parts of your PhD.

[00:24:10] Alex: So at a technical level, it was when I was starting to formulate how the mathematics would look to describe the problem I was trying to solve. And having some insights and starting to see how it may come together and what the results would look like. So that was a turning point thinking, okay, I can get some results. I can hopefully get some way with this. And then also in relationship so that when you stop publishing some papers, I published some throughout my thesis. Some people do it at the end and once they’re published and accepted, you think, okay, I’ve got a chance now of finally graduating. So there’s a little bit of pressure lifted there.

[00:24:39] And also when you’re giving talks at conferences and you get some helpful feedback, I’ll never forget once 1 fellow student from another uni stood up and gave a talk about his thesis. He was just wrapping up. And so I’m a professor from another uni stood up at the back of the room and said, did you know this problem was solved 20 years ago in another country by professor X,

[00:24:56] I’ve never saw someone looks so deflated in their life, [00:25:00] the panic on his face.

[00:25:01] But yeah, so. it’s when you get, you know, constructive feedback, when people say, okay, we can see how this is going to work. We can see the impact this will have, here are some suggestions to improve, to get through a problem, whatever. So those points really, I think, kept you positive. Compared to other times when you were just so lost in the details that you can’t see anything beyond that

Is PhD worth it?

[00:25:18] Catherine: but there is, I think maybe a bit of a fear sometimes of people going into the PhD journey, because it is such a long investment of time and energy and your soul that you want to make sure that at the end of it it’s been worth it. Do you feel like your PhD journey was worth it?

[00:25:36] Alex: No doubt. I would do it all over again.

[00:25:38] Catherine: Would you do the same subject? Like I know you do maths, would you apply to the same problem? Would you want to apply it to a different problem?

[00:25:44] Alex: Possibly I was torn at the time between the problem I’d chosen and one in related to cryptography. so I think I’d probably go back and change to cryptography, which probably would have been more challenging in some ways. But I think given some of the work I’m doing these days, he probably would have been much more applicable.

[00:25:59] [00:26:00] Yeah, I think it would have been exciting as well would have been a real challenge, which I would have loved at the time.

[00:26:04] Catherine: Well, you do the double degree. Would you do a double PhD? Would you go back and do another one?

[00:26:09] Alex: I actually thought about that a while back and I was told that’s ridiculous. Why would you do that?

[00:26:14] Catherine: Why would you do it yourself twice?

[00:26:16] Alex: Exactly, exactly. I just, I guess I missed being a student. This is such a unique time in your life where you’re just focusing on a certain problem for a number of years. And you can just be free and, research and explore.

[00:26:26] And, you have that freedom that you don’t get later on and you’re amongst, you know, all these talented people and fantastic minds. And you can just bounce ideas off one another. That’s something that you can’t really ever relieve in industry. You can get close, but you won’t ever be in that same realm again.

[00:26:39] So yeah, I think it’s such a unique special time.

[00:26:42] Catherine: Being a PhD is pretty special and it’s not for everybody, but it is for those that should be there. And I totally agree with you, Alex. We need to make sure that the diversity and inclusion aspects of maths PhDs is really improved and keeps improving, not just because it’s morally right, but actually as a country, I think we’ve recognized for national security reasons, if nothing [00:27:00] else, economic success, for example, then we actually really need more people going into maths.

Advice for future students of PhD in Maths

[00:27:04] Catherine: So I suppose if there was anyone listening to you right now, and they’re sort of contemplating, potentially doing a PhD and they do quite like maths, but they do quite like physics and they do quite like chemistry and they’re not quite sure. Can you give us an elevator pitch as to why you think maths is probably the best way for them to go for their PhD?

[00:27:19] Alex: I think it really comes down to the transferable skills that maths is used in so many fields and areas that you’ll always be employable. And you’ll always be able to tackle challenges from a unique perspective. and I think, you know, hopefully to some people sounds cool having a PhD in maths might be just to me, but I’d like to think some people think that sounds a bit different and that they can see the value in that.

[00:27:39] So I can’t see any disadvantages in doing one in maths. So i think the benefits definitely outweigh any pain you may go through. So I’d heavily encourage people. And if anyone likes, they’re more than happy to reach out to me and I’m happy to chat further and discuss options.

Parting words

[00:27:53] Catherine: Well, that was going to be my next question. So where can people find you and how can they get in touch with you if they’d like to know more about PhDs in maths

[00:27:59] Alex: they’re free [00:28:00] to connect with me on LinkedIn or go to my website. dralexantic.com and yeah, they can contact me through there. And I’m always happy to look at mentoring and, connect people to maybe others. They want to speak to with different backgrounds or to consider different options.

[00:28:11] Anyone’s contemplating a PhD in a particular area, always try and give them my perspective, but also that of others. So it’s a balanced view and discuss both the pros and cons and try to understand what they want to do, why they want to do it and what might be the best path for them, give them options.

[00:28:23] And they can then think about it and, take whatever path is easier. Yeah. I’ll promote interest in best fit to them.

[00:28:29] Catherine: Thanks so much for your time today, Alex, you and I could just geek out about your research till the cows come home. But we wanted to talk about your PhD today. So we’ll have to geek out with you about data science another day. do you have any parting words for anyone who might be listening to this thinking you know, I’m in the middle of my career, I’m in my forties, in my fifties. Should I really even consider going back? Do you think it’s worth people going back to do PhDs once they’re mid-career.

[00:28:49] Alex: I think it’s a great time to do it, you know? Financially stable. And so you’ve had children and they’ve left the coop. So I think a, it’s a great way to, finally, I guess, go deep in theory and research that you [00:29:00] may not have done in the past and a great chance to, have some time for yourself.

[00:29:03] If that makes sense to, you know, look at project that you’re passionate about and just really get stuck into it and have some supervision and guidance your supervisors and your colleagues to explore something that you may be thinking about for a while. And if at the end you get to have that PhD doctor title what a nice bonus that is for some people, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy the journey no matter what happens.

[00:29:25] Catherine: I think I’d have to agree with you. It’s certainly is formative. Thank you so much for your time today and look forward to catching up with you again soon.

[00:29:32] Alex: My pleasure. Thank you