Friday, August 19, 2016

Innovation Day: Internationalization and Multidisciplinary Opportunities

Today we had our annual event of Innovation Day for the institute. This is the day where we get to honour the high achievers (and the ex-staff) of the institute and we renew our pledge for the institute. This is probably my last as my appointment ends before June next year. My involvement was really minimal (only text editing) since the staff members knew what to do best for the event given their past experience.

Dato' Kamel Ariffin was named as the Leading Figure (tokoh) of the institute this year since he has led the institute for the last 13 years or so. He also gave the invited lecture for this event where he reminded us on the vision and mission of the institute, which we most often read but not properly paid attention to. The vision of the institute is the following:

It is the vision of the Institute for Mathematical Research to become a renowned institute in mathematical sciences research, contributing towards the development of progress and well-being of mankind.

It is certainly similar to the vision of many other institutes/centres but the challenge is how can we realise it. What are the gaps? For me, we can't do without international recognition and to have recognition as such, we have to be technically on par with established institutes (the prominent ones were mentioned in Dato's talk). Having international networks can be part of the process to get such recognition and I believe, I have mentioned it in one of my presentations a few years back (though later I found out it wasn't very well-received by some). Now, I say "part of the process" because at the heart of what matters are the content/output that we are producing. This is very much dependent of the context of how we are evaluated. For instance, Isaac Newton Institute (INI) is an institute that are based on research activity programmes carried out there (see here) and hence their goals or KPIs are different from ours. We are still subjected to the common set of KPIs that are given to the other faculties/institutes of the university and hence must be addressed as such. This can be difficult given that some KPIs may not really address the strength of mathematical sciences. Nevertheless we will soldier on. Back to international recognition, a key point to address is our research, addressing questions of common interest to the international community or if it is a niche area, commonly accepted at the level of international standards. This should be done every now and then as new topics come into favour and old ones might die out. In the past, privately I also have suggested that we should start the culture of submitting preprints of our papers to international repositories like the arXiv. In this way, our work gets wider international exposure and possibly more citations. This is not part of our practice just as yet.

Talking about international content, another matter raised is multidisciplinary topics and in particular the use of mathematics in biology, perhaps due to the university's tradition in agricultural sciences. I couldn't agree any better with this one and I have been mentioning the need to go beyond our strict disciplines (even within the mathematics subdisciplines themselves). Perhaps even closer to mathematics than biology are physics and computer science. Mathematics and physics historically have been close partners and in the institute, we have areas like nonlinearity and secure communications that could have been developed together with the physicists. Computer science of course even had shared department with mathematics before; while now separated into different faculties, closer co-operation could still be maintained and new areas could be explored (such as the ones that have been proposed earlier with University of Auckland) and in particular data science/mining. During my visit to UMT earlier, I had mentioned the same thing. Even with mathematical biology, many leading experts have (theoretical) physics background. For instance, Reidun Twarock (see the INI video in the given link above) whose group-theoretical work on virus structures is well known, had an earlier background on quantization. Coincidentally, Twarock was a guest of the institute during the mathematical biology conference that I had chaired sometime ago (see her article in this conference proceedings). For agricultural sciences, we had earlier close contact with Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland (BioSS) which could have been put into advantage but now that our researcher, who had this contact, has left the institute, the co-operation has now slowed down. Thus, we had many opportunities to follow the multi-disciplinary route as suggested but again we need willing partners.

Presently, we have an upcoming big opportunity with the Malaysia-Italy Centre of Excellence for Mathematical Sciences, whose office is in the same building as the institute. We could not be any closer to an international entity than this and from what I have heard, the focus research areas are may be industrially driven, requiring multidisciplinary outlook. I look forward to what can be done with the centre and I suggest this to be our main focus in the near future since such opportunity is very rare. With only a few years of service left with the university, this has to be taken up mostly by our younger colleagues. I do wish that my younger colleagues will take up the opportunity with the Italians and also meet the challenges posed here and by Dato'. This will certainly pave the way for the institute to be of international repute. I wish the institute all the best in its future undertakings.

I end this post with the multimedia presentation made earlier for our Innovation Day:

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