Since leaving School, Tim Roberts, our Dux of 2013, has completed a Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney and graduated with first class honours. He was awarded the University Medal and the Joye Prize for Mathematics which is given to the Honours student with the highest mark in the School of Mathematics and Statistics. Tim is currently doing his PhD at Brown University, an Ivy League school in the United States, for which he accepted a full academic scholarship. Brown is home to some of the world’s best researchers in Tim’s area of research, Dynamical systems.
We had a chat to Tim over Zoom recently and asked him some questions about his academic career and his Arden experience.
Can you tell is a bit about what you do? What are you currently working on?
The area of maths I currently work in is called Dynamical systems – but I focus more specifically on Spatial dynamics – looking at the existence and stability of patterns in nature and in physical space. I am an Applied Mathematician which means I set about solving real world problems and figure out how to cast them in sensible ways to come up with solutions.
What made you decide to study at Brown University?
After my undergraduate degree I applied for Scholarships to a few of the better Colleges in the US and was successful for Brown. Brown was my first choice too because my current supervisor is one of the best in the world at what he does, so I am happy to be here.
What is it like living in the US at the moment? Do you miss Australia?
The University is located in Providence, Rhode Island and I have an apartment 5 minutes from campus. I have been here for a bit over a year so far and will begin my second year in September. I have mostly been working from my apartment for the past five months because of the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdowns which is definitely a challenge! Being isolated is hard but the positive is that I can focus a lot on my research. I do miss my friends and family in Australia, but I catch up with them as much as I can online and over the phone. It is good to hear an Australian accent though!
What does a typical day in your life look like?
I spend a lot of my time either on a computer, reading papers or working on my own research projects. I have a weekly individual meeting with my supervisor and a weekly group meeting where I collaborate with other researchers. We also have two scheduled social times per week where we can come together with our colleagues in a fun way.
Can you tell us about your time at Arden?
I was at Arden from Year 7 to Year 12. I have fond memories of Arden and remember all of the teachers being very supportive, especially my science and maths teachers. I feel like Arden was a good place for me. I have to give a lot of credit to my maths teacher Mrs Killin and my science and physics teachers Mrs Miller and Mr Fiander (both no longer at Arden) for encouraging my interest in mathematics.
What made these teachers special to you?
They always went out of their way to provide me opportunities to progress in my schoolwork. In Year 9 & 10 Mrs Miller taught me science and she would let me work a bit further ahead. She was always happy to talk to me about more sophisticated topics and would often send me home with more advanced textbooks to read and exercises to do. I still keep in contact with Mrs Killin and like to keep her updated on my progress from time to time.
Were you always interested in maths?
Yes, I was interested in maths from a young age. I remember my grandmother gave me some rudimentary problem-solving books when I was in Year 3 or 4. She was quite supportive of my schooling. I had a few friends in Year 5 & 6 who were into Science and maths and we used to discuss various topics. My interest grew from there.
What made you decide to pursue a career in mathematics?
At Arden I remember doing a PIP (Personal Interest Project) on the Enigma machine – a Nazi code machine used to create encoded messages during WW2. The codes were very difficult to break because it had so many settings. I wrote a program on my laptop that simulated the machine. It was the first thing I ever did that was programming related, and I use programming all the time in my work now. I found this pretty interesting and enjoyed that project.
In my secondary years, after reading some books on black holes, I thought I wanted to work in theoretical physics and I almost majored in physics in my undergrad degree but I hated the labs, I am not cut out for experiments! So, I majored in Applied Mathematics instead.
What advice would you give to Arden graduates or current students wanting to pursue a similar career path to you?
If you enjoy it, I think science and maths can be a lot of fun. There is a lot of enjoyment to be had in these subjects and the people who typically do enjoy maths are the ones who find the challenge of overcoming difficult problems rewarding. If you have an innate curiosity and like to prove answers to problems, or enjoy finding the truth in things, then you could be a mathematician.
It is a common misconception that maths and science is only for those who understand it already. That’s not really true at all. Maths is not easy for anyone. It is also a myth that you need to be fantastic at maths in order to do science, it may help in some areas, but this is not necessarily true either. What you really need is the dedication to work hard enough to overcome challenges. The people who are good at these subjects are the ones who look hard enough until they find the answers.
What does the future hold for you?
I have at least four more years of study ahead of me at Brown and I am interested in doing an internship in the future to give me a better idea of where I can employ my skills. There are a lot of career opportunities for people with a maths and science background, whether in finance, or software. Even in areas you may not expect. For example, a lot of big animation companies like Pixar and DreamWorks employ mathematicians to design their computer animations. I could also pursue a career in academia and would be happy doing this too.
Tim, thank you very much for talking to us, we hope the rest of your time in the US goes well and we look forward to seeing where your career takes you.
Tim, shown with his father Marc, won the Joye Prize in Mathematics in 2019
Tim graduated from the University of Sydney with first class honours and the University medal