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Spotlight on Byron Jacobs

Visitor to the School

Dr Byron Jacobs is visiting us at the School for three months, collaborating on research with our staff members Bruce Henry, Chris Angstmann, and James Nichols. Byron, whose research area focuses on PDEs and image processing, opens up about his academic career in South Africa, the work he is doing at UNSW, and what kindled his interest in mathematics.

Interview conducted by School Communications Officer, Susannah Waters


You are visiting our School for three months. What prompted you to come and join us for this period?

We have an annual conference called the South African Symposium on Numerical and Applied Mathematics (SANUM) which is hosted by several universities in South Africa with each university getting a chance to organise it. In 2014 my home institution, the University of the Witwatersrand, was due to organise it. We decided that we would like to draw a number of plenary speakers from across the world to bring some new blood to the conference and drive home the point that the research being conducted in South Africa really is world class.

In any case one of the plenaries we selected was Professor Bruce Henry and I was so intrigued by his presentation and the approach he was taking toward what is essentially exactly the field I’m in that I knew there was a lot I could learn from Bruce and his collaborators.

Your research area is PDEs, image processing, numerical methods and applying PDEs to images. Can you describe what this means and entails?

Image processing is an extremely broad field and many different approaches are taken to achieve some remarkable things. PDEs on the other hand present a very elegant way of capturing dynamical behaviour and there is a host of analytic tools available. I was always intrigued by problem solving as well as mathematical modelling so the marriage of these two fields felt quite natural. Of course the numerical method aspect of the work is really the glue that holds everything together. Ultimately we can then apply physically derived models to images to obtain useful results.

When and how did you first become interested in mathematics, and what excites you most about it?

I was always an average student in primary and high school, but I think one tends to gravitate toward things they are good at. In my first year of high school I applied myself in the Mathematics classroom and found that it came quite easily to me.

I didn’t really come to appreciate the enormity of the field until much later. Since I was good at Maths in high school it was an easy choice to study it at university. Even as a child I enjoyed problem solving and remember fixing household appliances and opening things up to see how they worked, so when I was exposed to applied mathematics and the whole world of problem solving at that level I fell in love with it.

One example that quite remarkably illustrates this is a problem that was brought to our Mathematics in Industry Study Group one year by the university soccer team. They wanted to know if they could choose their soccer ball to maximise the advantage over their opposition. Prof Tim Myers who is now at Centre de Recerca Matem`atica in Barcelona ran with this problem and showed using some very elegant mathematics that they should choose a ball that behaves in the extremes. After practicing with this ball and a long losing streak the soccer team took the advice of mathematics and went on to have a very successful season. This problem always sticks in my mind when thinking about how profoundly mathematics underlies everything, even in seemingly unrelated places.

You are currently a Lecturer at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, where you undertook your undergraduate degrees (BSc Computational and Applied Maths and BSc Hons Computational and Applied Maths) and your PhD. Tell us a bit about the School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics there, and its research culture.

Since my first year with the school as an undergraduate, the school has always felt like home to me. I really became entrenched in the school and the university in my Honours year where I began to see a place where I could build a career and a life. My transition from postgraduate student to staff was seamless and felt very natural as I have enormous respect for all my colleagues and mentors in the school.

We have a fantastic support structure there and it really feels like a family. We have a strong computational cohort of researchers, all with their own niches, so every day you are bound to learn something new which keeps the job exciting. We also have some world renowned researchers in the field of symmetries, continuum mechanics and optimization.

What tips would you give to someone travelling to South Africa? What culturally significant places should they visit?

The University of the Witwatersrand is located in Braamfontein which is in the city of Johannesburg. It’s a cultural melting pot of jazz music and young South Africans mixing in the most inspiring way. This is, in my opinion, the heart of new South Africa. Just west of the university is the Maropeng area which includes Sterkfontein Caves and Cradle of Humankind, which has been shown to be the birth place of humankind. It’s an extremely beautiful area and it never hurts to learn a thing or two.

The Kruger Park is incredible for viewing game in their natural habitat and is a must for any animal lover. Cape Town and Stellenbosch are truly beautiful parts of the country from Table Mountain to the vineyards in Stellenbosch. The wild coast is an untouched coastline where you can go surfing with backpackers and live in the traditional rondavals (mud huts) with the locals; a fantastic experience.

Outside of work, what are your main interests/hobbies?

I love playing music and particular sound synthesis. I hope to integrate my research with this passion of how sounds are made and propagate. I tinker with some electronics which ties into the previous hobby nicely. I have a wonderful wife with whom I share a love of food and cooking. I’m also fortunate enough to have a loving family and family-in-law that I enjoy spending time with.

Do you have any particular maths role models?

I think Alan Turing was an incredible mind and years ahead of his time, I guess my love of computers and machines should be attributed to him. I remember reading Fermat’s last theorem in high school and being perplexed by the contrast in the simplicity of the statement of his theorem and then later finding Wiles’ proof which is completely mind boggling.

What do you hope to achieve during your time at UNSW?

I hope to build lasting collaborations with the team here. I’ve felt very welcome and at home here. I’ve learnt an inordinate amount from Dr. Chris Angstmann and Dr. James Nichols during my stay, for which I’m extremely grateful. I know it can be difficult to communicate and work efficiently over an 8 hour time difference but I really do hope that our work together extends long after this visit is over.

Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?

I hope to be an Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand with collaborators from around the world. I hope to continue supervising postgraduate students and fostering an environment of creative and scientific thinking. I also hope to be involved with industry or interdisciplinary work focusing on the solution of real world problems.


May 2015