A Massey University professor who uses mathematics to model the drift of ash from volcanic eruptions as well as solving industrial problems has just been awarded the highest Australasian accolade for maths in industry.
Robert McKibbin, a Professor of Applied Mathematics based at the Institute of Information and Mathematical Sciences at Albany, received the 2012 ANZIAM (Australian and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics group) Medal for his lifelong work in applied and industrial mathematics.
He is known as one of the pre-eminent applied mathematicians in New Zealand, with a particular focus on geophysical and industrial applications, from modelling hydrothermal eruptions in areas such as Rotorua and the distribution of volcanic dust from eruptions, to fluid motion and pollution transport in groundwater aquifers, ground subsidence and aluminium and iron smelting.
Professor McKibbin says he had always been good at maths at school, but never realised until he reached university how diverse its applications and uses could be in a wide range of industrial, agricultural and other scientific areas.
“In mathematical modelling, we take an interdisciplinary approach. You need to understand the physics, chemistry or biology of a phenomenon as well as having the mathematical tools to address whatever the problem is,” he says.
Creating conceptual models for invisible or unpredictable phenomena – like volcanic dust particles and underground hydrothermal activity – is both challenging and fascinating, he says. “You are dealing with ‘what if’ scenarios, like 'what if Mount Taranaki blew its top?' What might the impact be, and how would the surrounding population and landscape be affected?”
Professor McKibbin, who was recognised at the awards ceremony for his contribution to research and enhancing the profile of applied and industrial maths through teaching and mentoring, including supervising more than 20 PhD and masters students, says budding high school mathematicians need to be made aware of the exciting job prospects available. "Mathematicians are a fairly rare breed, and are highly sought-after by a range of industries for their logical thinking and conceptual skills that are needed in problem solving.”
Professor McKibbin received the medal on February 1 at a presentation at the group’s conference in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. It has been awarded biennially since 1995, making him the ninth person, and only the second New Zealand-based mathematician to receive it. The other was Professor Graeme Wake, also from the Albany-based institute, who received it in 2006.