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How maths could help you reach hypersonic levels and a rewarding career

Isaac Gargett – Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Griffith University
Fang Liu – Mount Gravatt State High School
Emad Khan – Mount Gravatt State High School
Mannix Showell – Mount Gravatt State High School

Mathematics is arguably the most versatile research discipline within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). However, it is a language spoken by very few people, and so it suffers an image problem; in all its elusive complexity, it seems to have no real-world applications. But within the limits of the real-world, there exists Dr. Andrew Stephan, who tells a completely different story.

Many scientists and engineers share a similar journey of exploring their options until they encounter something they enjoy. Dr Stephan persevered through harder and less enjoyable times to reach his current position working on the optimisation of parts for hypersonic vehicles at Boeing Research & Technology – Australia.

In his high school years, like many students, Dr. Stephan was strongly encouraged by his parents to pursue an undergraduate degree at university. After suffering the tribulations of tutoring towards the end of his high school career, he settled on pursuing maths, simply because it was the subject that interested him the most. He went on to complete a Bachelor of Mathematics at The University of Sydney, majoring in statistics and applied maths before stumbling upon a PhD, landing in the realm of computational simulations. Here he drew upon his interest in computer science and coding, and his developing understanding of complex mathematics, and reached a stage where he no longer needed excessive encouragement.

“I was initially drawn to how general mathematics was. I remember in high school comparing notes across my math courses and my physics courses, seeing how some of the formulas we were learning were actually derived. This continued into my degree, where I learnt that that even the most abstract seeming of ideas were actually extremely important from a practical perspective. Even now I am sometimes described as application agnostic by my colleagues,” said Dr Stephan.

Dr. Stephan’s PhD thesis examined how bodies such as the Sun or Earth generate magnetic fields. Given the impracticality of going into space to do this work, he composed what are called ‘solvers’ or computer simulations to model these phenomena. He was able to shed light on the magnetic fields hosted by celestial bodies and experience first-hand, the application of mathematics to real-world questions.

After completing his doctorate, Dr. Stephan discovered that Boeing Research & Technology – Australia utilise solvers and other computational algorithms in their research, which lead him to his current research position. His work continues to focus on the construction of solvers, but in a very different area. The solvers he currently works on are used to optimise and streamline the manufacture of parts used in the assembly of hypersonic vehicles. Such research could provide faster commercial air travel, faster long-range military responses and easier access to space. This has knock on effects on the time, energy, and materials required for aeronautics, and is a prime example of how simulations are used today in manufacturing and engineering.

“I was surprised to find such a high demand for mathematics in industry. I had never really thought too much about my career path until I was nearing the end of my studies, and then I found myself with too many paths forward to choose from! I was very fortunate to come across the opportunity at Boeing Research & Technology, as it allows me to apply the skills I learnt through my degree to very broad range of practical problems in aerospace engineering,” said Dr Stephan.

Dr. Stephan’s path to a PhD and his current position at Boeing Research & Technology – Australia, defies the traditional tropes of the ‘math prodigy’, commonly associated with mathematicians. Andrew’s story demonstrates how high-level mathematics can be utilised in the real world, to not only optimise hypersonic vehicles, but constitute a long and rewarding career.

Judges’ Feedback

“Terrific lead and title, this piece really drew me into the story. I thought the explanation of his work was great and appreciated the argument that debunks the super-mathematician stereotype. This was a well-thought through piece and very successful.”

“I really enjoyed the writing style, it made the piece more engaging. I also like the take that maths as a career choice is the impact we should take away from this.”