at ‘peace’ Mass
Hand tennis gave professor all the angles on mathematics
By Damir Govorcin
Did Albert Einstein inspire Matt Wand (pictured), Professor of Statistics at the University of NSW? Or was it John Forbes Nash, the mathematical genius who was the subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe?
No. It was hand tennis, which was all the rage when Matt was a student at Edmund Rice College, Wollongong, in the late 1970s.
During lunchtime, he would pound a tennis ball across the schoolyard, fascinated by a game of angles and strategy. He discovered a practical use for mathematics.
“In the 1970s hand-tennis was a very popular game in the schoolyards of Wollongong and perhaps it still is,” says Matt. “It is a mini version of tennis with the ball hit by the palm.”
It helped Matt forge a successful career in mathematics.
After Edmund Rice College, he studied at the University of Wollongong, where he graduated Bachelor of Mathematics (honours) and won the University Medal.
It led him to five-and-a-half years as professor of biostatistics at Harvard University.
“I was approached by a professor who thought my skill set could be of use there,” he says. “Biostatistics is essentially numbers meets medicine and public health.
“Modern health research relies on studies in which reams of data of various type are collected.
“The biostatistician helps draw sound conclusions from these data.”
On the surface, teaching about numbers can appear to be boring. Matt says he tries to keep his students interested by integrating “examples from their area of study into the class examples and assignments”.
The 39-year-old is passionate about his work and believes numbers and equations “form the basis of all sound decision-making”.
“Data are just numbers,” he says. “Making them informative is the challenge.
“Scientists and businesses need statisticians to take their sometimes massive spreadsheets and turn them into sound decisions andconclusions.”
Matt grew up in Wollongong (he is one of four boys) and has fond memories of surfing and camping on the South Coast. And he wants to teach his children, Declan, six, and Jaida, five, how to surf now that the family has bought a home near Coogee Beach.
Edmund Rice College provided Matt with a solid grounding in life and the skills to inspire others.
“My Catholic upbringing has, I think, contributed towards my skills for working with other people,” he says. “My fondest memory was learning calculus from an elderly Christian Brother, Br Killian, who had about 40-odd years teaching experience by the time he became our maths teacher.”
Matt, a former school captain, was recently invited back to induct the college’s new leaders.
“It had been 22 years since I was last at the school and it was nice to come back,” he says. “When I was at the school in the late 70s it was before any of this Internet and video recorder stuff ... we only had two TV channels - the ABC and WIN4.”
Matt and his wife Handan have been married for 10 years, half of which they spent in Boston.
“The main challenge for me was dealing with the freezing and long winters,” says Matt. “Sometimes two layers of thermal gloves weren’t enough for my morning bike ride to work.”
But, despite the weather, teaching at Harvard “was a great experience”.
When he was approached by the University of NSW to become Professor of Statistics, he accepted because he “prefers the Australian life and wanted to give it to my children”.
His new job entails “research on the interface of statistics and biology, teaching and research mentoring,” he says.
One of the challenges is dealing with the tighter funding that Australia has compared with the US.
“What I hope to achieve in thisjob is to help Australia stay on the map in world scientific research,” he says.