Ten years on, Maynooth institute still counts

Mon, Oct 15, 2012, 01:00

A DECADE ago two engineers with a small funding grant joined forces to promote mathematics research. Today, the Hamilton Institute at NUI Maynooth supports the work of 50 PhD, postdoctoral and academic researchers, all involved in real-world studies based on maths.

The grant was offered by Science Foundation Ireland in support of applied mathematics. But Doug Leith and Robert Shorten, joint founders of the institute, didn’t know at the time just how far their efforts would lead.

“The original project was not to set up an institute, but we wanted to use the seed funding to build something more substantial,” said Prof Leith.

He was involved in wind energy and Prof Shorten was working in the motor industry.

“Doug and I are actually engineers,” said Prof Shorten. “We both saw the benefit of mathematics to industry: it is often a liberating tool when trying to solve problems.”

The goal was to develop a centre where real-world problems could be solved.

“It is not maths for maths’ sake,” he said, but maths that could be applied to improve quality of life, in healthcare and in many other areas.

Maynooth’s institute has one of the largest applied maths research groups in Europe. It is involved in a wide range of research areas, but all deliver practical results rather than advancing pure mathematics research. Even so, there is still room for pure maths within the institute.

“We try to pick areas where there is a level of complexity involved,” said Prof Leith. In this way students working in the institute are challenged by the projects and can benefit from solving them. “That is what we like doing, taking hard problems and getting solutions.”

There are plenty of examples, which address a surprising range of problems. The institute is currently involved in an international project to manage traffic flow through cities more effectively. The goal is to improve efficiency and avoid pollution peaks in order to improve the urban environment.

Another international collaboration brings together maths and medical science. It involves trying to understand the immune system and uses mathematical probability to analyse research data collected by doctors.

In yet another project the Hamilton Institute has created an algorithm to reduce radio frequency interference on wifi networks, a development of interest to industrial partners who can use the technology to improve wireless traffic.

Students often shun mathematics – in part supported by their parents – because they don’t realise the career opportunities that open up, the two professors argue.

“The smart industries are really crying out for mathematics graduates,” Prof Leith said, pointing out that up to two-thirds of graduates go directly into jobs in industry.