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Source: University of Otago

New Head of Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Sarah Wakes.
Full circle is the way Associate Professor Sarah Wakes describes moving into her new role as Head of Department of Mathematics and Statistics, one which connects back to her early undergraduate studies in mathematics and physics.
In the interim period, Professor Wakes professional experience has involved multiple strands of interconnected disciplines, providing a broad platform of applications and supporting her external outlook.
Professor Wakes joined the Department of Mathematics and Statistics two years ago, after her arrival at Otago in 2002 to teach in the Department of Design Studies, followed by time in the Department of Applied Sciences and the Centre for Materials Science and Technology.
“While the core of applied mathematics and engineering has been constant through my teaching across these different areas, it is also my interests in design and creativity, as well as my passion for sustainability, that have weaved it together and made it all interesting,” Professor Wakes says.
A clue to her width of expertise and interests may have been evident in the completion of a PhD through a ‘breakaway’ applied mathematics department based in the University of Nottingham’s School of Engineering.
Professor Wakes Doctorate in applied mathematics, with a focus on fluid dynamics in relation to the formation of sand dunes, continues to be her primary research thread which now uses computational fluid dynamics for physical world applications.

“I want to enable staff and students to be the best they can be, and in my new role one area I feel like I can help is addressing diversity and equity. I believe we shouldn’t feel constrained or siloed by departments, and we should be accepting of people who like to work and study across these perceived boundaries.”

The applicability of her research to industry was initially recognised, when as a consequence of the North Sea Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, Professor Wakes undertook modelling for the offshore oil industry for safety of personnel on super-structures after a fire.
“When I came to Otago, I learned a lot about design which proved to be a perfect connection between applied mathematics, engineering and my creative sides,” Professor Wakes describes.
She continues to teach bioengineering design in the Bioengineering Masters programme, and the differing strands of work also fostered her passion for sustainability.
For the last four years Professor Wakes has led and taught the summer school paper in the sustainability of materials, and the topic’s relevance in addressing contemporary challenges has seen enrolments in the paper double from 2020 to 104 at the start of this year.
Since being part of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Wakes has been involved in an entire redesign of the 100-level curriculum, developed with extensive consultation with partner departments across the University.
The redesign includes a new paper called Mathematics for Scientists, which she describes as being about exploration of the role mathematics plays in other scientific disciplines and is aimed at getting people over the hump of not believing they can do mathematics.
“One of the biggest barriers for maths is students believing they aren’t good at it, so as mathematicians, we have to be understanding and lead an individual through.”
As the first female Head of Department for Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Wakes says the position is a privilege no matter what gender you are.
“I want to enable staff and students to be the best they can be, and in my new role one area I feel like I can help is addressing diversity and equity.
“I believe we shouldn’t feel constrained or siloed by departments, and we should be accepting of people who like to work and study across these perceived boundaries.”
Professor Wakes explains that one of the main benefits of her experience across many different areas of the university is the wide opportunity it has provided to work on interesting things, as well as fostering an external perspective.
She relishes her collaborative work, such as with the School of Geography working on coastal geomorphology issues, and which currently includes a PhD project modelling sediment movement through installed notches on foredunes at St Kilda.
“All my professional and personal interests seem to come together in the physical world, to understand what’s happening, and how to make it better.”
Kōrero by Guy Frederick, Sciences Communications Adviser

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