AMSI caught up with Dr Jen Pestana from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow to take a look at her journey in mathematics. We find out about the advantages of developing a professional network and how AMSI has taken her full circle from being a VRS project recipient to a Winter School lecturer mentoring the next generation of mathematical scientists.
Research is powered by networks: connections that open jobs, seed projects, create a sense of community and ultimately pave pathways to progress careers.
AMSI Winter School 2019 Lecturer Dr Jen Pestana knows all too well the power of these slip roads to opportunity, branches of connectivity that have led her from Queensland University of Technology and AMSI to Oxford and University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
For someone who has profited so richly from connection, it is perhaps ironic that her love of maths and the confidence she has carried forward into her career were born in relative isolation. “My parents enrolled me in a maths program, which I participated in remotely. I discovered a powerful buzz and sense of achievement from being able to solve problems by myself,” she explains.
Having taken a university subject in Year 12, Pestana embarked on a physics degree at QUT before making the switch to maths and, partly out of necessity, the world of computational mathematics. “I was introduced to the field through the enthusiasm of Professor Ian Turner who is passionate about linear algebra and really jump-started my career in computational mathematics,” she says.
A numerical analysis lecturer, Pestana relishes her work for its mix of computing and analysis and the challenges opened by each problem. “I use iterative methods to solve linear systems—complex sequences of millions of equations derived from mathematical models. Work that is used across a wide variety of areas from fluid flow and solid mechanics to economics,” she explains.
It was early mentor Ian Turner who also encouraged Pestana’s first engagement with AMSI through the Vacation Research Scholarship (VRS) Program. The program sees undergraduate students give up the beach during summer to undertake real-world research projects, an experience she still draws on today. “VRS was the first time I had tried research. It provided an opportunity to work through the process and answer a question in a low-stakes environment. An important opportunity, particularly for women in research,” she says.
She also took home a toolbox of skills from the program’s finale event, Big Day In (now known as AMSIConnect). Experience in networking and presenting that has provided an edge for years to come. “I didn’t realise how important this opportunity was until later. The networking skills I honed and the understanding of how to engage has proven an enormous advantage in my career,” she says.
Given the impact on her own career, Pestana is full of praise for AMSI and its programs, platforms she sees as invaluable for powering women’s confidence and careers. “Access to these opportunities can be transformative for women who often second guess themselves and their capacity to competitively drive careers. The best bit is, the ‘oh I can do this’ moment. A rush of confidence from being in these environments,” she says.
Having followed AMSI’s activities, her deep appreciation and own experience of how valuable the Institute’s programs are for students brought her back to Australia to lecture on numerical methods for Stokes flow at AMSI Winter School 2019. One of Australia’s leading residential mathematics events, the two week training school extends knowledge and expertise for postgraduate and early-career researchers.
“It felt like a privilege, I knew what a great thing it was for the students and the impact it would have on their careers. I was also inspired by their enthusiasm, their questions really showed they were engaged and they took me in new directions,” she said.
Now back in Glasgow, Pestana is keen to find an opportunity to return for another AMSI event. Along the way, maybe she too will be part of the web of connections future generations weave into their very own research career.