Leading the way in pure mathematics

24 October 2019

An alumnus of The University of Queensland, Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger, has received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science in recognition of her contribution to pure mathematics.

The recognition is in stark contrast to the beginnings of Professor Praeger’s career, when a vocational adviser strongly discouraged her from pursuing a career in mathematics, suggesting it was not a viable option for women.

Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger (photo courtesy of ABC)

Ignoring this advice, Professor Praeger has gone on to become one of the most-lauded and well-published mathematicians in Australia, with more than 410 publications to her name spanning group theory, permutation groups and combinatorics.

“I’ve always loved mathematics right from when I was a kid in school,” said Professor Praeger.

“I had no idea that one could have a career in mathematics but I just wanted to study it for as long as I possibly could.”

Professor Praeger began her studies at UQ, where two female academics were among those teaching her, providing her with a sense of belonging in an industry that was still heavily male-dominated. After graduating in the early 1970s with first class honours, the University Medal in mathematics, and a master’s degree, she attended the University of Oxford, where she received her second master’s degree and a doctorate. In 2017, she was awarded a UQ degree of Doctor of Mathematics, honoris causa from UQ.

In 1983, Professor Praeger became the first Australian-born woman appointed as a full professor in mathematics at any Australian University. Throughout her career, largely based at the University of Western Australia, Professor Praeger established herself as a pioneer in group theory. Her work ultimately influenced computer security systems that became imperative in securing information on the internet. She is also known as a strong supporter of women in mathematics, a passionate advocate for school maths at all levels, and is well-recognised as a leader in mathematics research supervision.

She was also the first female president of the Australian Mathematical Society, the first Australia-based executive committee member of the International Mathematical Union, the first pure mathematician to receive an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship, an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society, and a foundation board member of the Australian Mathematics Trust. 

Professor Praeger says that the prospects for those interested in a career in mathematics are bright, with advances bringing a new set of challenges that will make for exciting and sustainable work over long careers.

“In the future we will see the advent of quantum computers and that will completely change the world,” she said.

“It will produce a new range of mathematics problems which will need to be solved urgently and it will be incredibly exciting.”