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Features: Faculty Insights


Ivan Smith is the new Head of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics. He tells us why it's an exciting time of renewal at DPMMS.

"It's going to be a time of change, with many new academic staff arriving at DPMMS and many more being hired over the coming years," says Smith. "We've just had [2006 Fields medallist] Wendelin Werner arrive as the Rouse Ball Professor, which is obviously an exciting time for probability in the department." There are changes in other significant chairs in the department, with Jack Thorne taking up the Kuwait Professorship of Number Theory and Algebra, and Oscar Randal-Williams the Sadleirian Professorship of Pure Mathematics at the start of 2024.

Additionally, Zoe Wyatt and Rita Teixeira da Costa have just been appointed as assistant professors for their work in mathematical analysis and general relativity. "We're really excited to have them both for their mathematics and for being able to bring more female role models into the department to inspire our students," says Smith. Wyatt, who has already started work at DPMMS, and Teixeira da Costa, who starts next year, both have linked positions at Murray Edwards College and Newnham College respectively. "It’s just chance that they work in the same field, but together with other people here and cognate strength in DAMTP they help make us a world-leading centre for PDEs and general relativity."

"In the coming three to four years we can envisage replacing up to twenty percent of the department." This, says Smith, is because of various reasons including the career stage of faculty members, with people moving on and retiring. "We have a potential to renew the department. That's a great change but it's also something we critically have to get right."

In order to do this Smith wants to work with his colleagues to steer the direction of DPMMS, and give them a space where change feels possible. "It's really important that people can feel empowered to change things if they want to and that we don't fossilise."

People at the heart of DPMMS

"The straight academic calibre of both our faculty and our students is one of our unique strengths," says Smith. An important part of his role as HoD is to create an inviting and stimulating environment for all. "For me the most important thing is to try to protect my colleagues," says Smith. "Most of all I'm here to help other people get their research done and make the department a welcoming place where they can flourish."

Smith and his colleagues at DPMMS feel a keen responsibility to their students: "It's a really collegiate place and people take teaching these students seriously." DPMMS is an internationally visible department, and while relatively large for the UK, it has to cover a huge spectrum of pure mathematics, statistics and probability. This is because DPMMS is responsible, jointly with DAMTP (the Department for Mathematics and Theoretical Physics), for the Part III Masters course which is seen as a resource not just for Cambridge, but for the wider mathematics community.

"Part III now has nearly 300 students every year – this year they come from more than 30 countries," says Smith. "This [course] has a big impact on the whole of UK mathematics and mathematics further afield."

Connections with DAMTP

Part III is just one of the many things the two departments work on together and maintaining a positive relationship between the departments is an important part of Smith’s work as HoD. "We teach the degree jointly, we have joint ambitions for our students and PhD provisions for our students," says Smith. Another example is the summer research programmes where undergraduate students are placed as interns with industrial partners or in projects within DPMMS and other departments.

"[These programmes] have been generously funded by alumnus James Bridgewater who was one of their cofounders," says Smith. "They can be very valuable, giving students their first taste of research mathematics, their first experience of working in collaboration, and their first experience of presenting a substantial piece of work to their peers." The internships are another fundraising priority, having grown in popularity to reach their natural size, exceeding the original funding.

This joint work with DAMTP provides a strong foundation for students and research staff alike. Ensuring a broad range of courses offered in Part III, for example, gives students the sense that all areas of mathematics are part of one enterprise. "I always tell my students, never think of yourself as a pure or applied mathematician," says Smith. "There are many beautiful ideas that draw from across the mathematical canon... it's important to respect as broad a church as possible."

There is also potential for new PhD students too. Every five years the Engineering and Physics Research Councils (EPSRC) awards funds for Centres of Doctoral Training. DPMMS is shortlisted for two such centres: one is a joint bid with DAMTP focussing on the mathematics of information, and the other is a joint bid with the University of Oxford in the areas of geometry and topology. "Funding PhD students is absolutely integral to what we're about in research mathematics," says Smith. These doctoral training centres sit alongside another potential EPSRC opportunity: a proposal for DPMMS to host a research hub in artificial intelligence, jointly with the universities of Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh. If the proposal for the AI Hub is successful it will create a new position of Professor in Artificial Intelligence in DPMMS.

"These [proposals], if successful, would provide big intellectual pushes, but the key intellectual direction of DPMMS is not contiguous on these funds," says Smith. Instead, the outcome of these bids will influence the other fundraising priorities for the Department over the next few years.

Smith is keen to carry on his own work with younger researchers, including mentoring his two new "brilliant" PhD students and a "great" new postdoctoral research associate during his time as HoD. "And of course, I'd actually still like to carry on being a research mathematician," he says. Smith was recently elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society for his work in symplectic geometry, an area that draws on a range of areas from algebraic geometry to dynamical systems, and has implications for modern theoretical physics (see here to find out more about Smith's work). The role of HoD is always a balancing act between research and departmental responsibilities, but DPMMS are confident they have found the right person for the job. Both Departments are looking forward to working with Smith and warmly welcome him to his new role.