• Katy Pallister

Maths and Computing Awardee 2020: Professor Apala Majumdar

“I learnt the value of integrity and dedication from my family early on in life”

Professor Apala Majumdar is an applied mathematician at the University of Strathclyde, who specialises in the mathematical modelling and applications of liquid crystals - materials which combine the fluidity of liquids with the order of crystalline solids. Majumdar uses a diverse range of mathematics to address fundamental questions in this area, such as the derivation and validation of theoretical frameworks, which ultimately aids the use of liquid crystals in industry, for example in display technology (LCD).

From a young age, Majumdar knew that she would specialise in a quantitative discipline, guided by her schooling experiences and supportive family. “My interest grew gradually and continuously since my school years. I was fortunate to have varied experiences as a child, which shaped my interest in mathematics and career in STEM,” Majumdar said. “I went to several local schools in Wales, and England and my mother, who is an academic, would often take me to India when I was a child, and I attended a local school in Delhi too.”

“My parents have been superb role models for me,” Majumdar continued. “Regardless of the actual profession, I learnt the value of hard work from my father, and the value of integrity and dedication from my family early on in life. These qualities are unequivocally needed in every sphere of life, including our careers.”

“Challenges are inevitable, but resilience and patience pay off”

Majumdar began her academic career by completing a Master’s degree in Mathematics and Physics, and PhD in Applied Mathematics, both at the University of Bristol. Following a year as a postdoctoral research assistant at Bristol, Majumdar joined the University of Oxford, where she not only carried out impactful research but also grew as a scientist. “Together with researchers from the Oxford Centre for Nonlinear Partial Differential Equations, my joint work on rigorous analytical frameworks for the powerful Landau-de Gennes theory for nematic liquid crystals was well-received. My postdoctoral years at Oxford, both at the Oxford Centre for Nonlinear Partial Differential Equations and the Oxford Centre for Collaborative Applied Mathematics (OCCAM), shaped and informed my career trajectory. In particular, my four years at OCCAM taught me the importance and value of collaborations, interdisciplinary work and solidarity in research and science.”

These positive experiences of unity and inclusive practices in science continued for Majumdar as she moved to different institutions. However, Majumdar’s career has not always been plain-sailing. “Multi-tasking is a challenge for many academics, including myself. Our roles tend to be multi-faceted, involving research, teaching, supervisory responsibilities and management roles. At a personal level, I encountered difficulties about 10 years ago and more recently, three years ago. I would say that challenges are inevitable, professionally and personally, but resilience and patience pay off and there is always light at the end of the tunnel.”

“I have led international workshops in Chile, Mexico, USA, Canada and UK”

Now a Professor at the University of Strathclyde, Majumdar’s outstanding contributions to the mathematics of liquid crystals have been recognised with several prestigious prizes, including the London Mathematical Society Anne Bennett Prize in 2019, and the British Liquid Crystal Society Cyril Hilsum Medal in 2020. Yet some of Majumdar’s award-winning research has its roots from an earlier time in her life.

“In recent years, I have made solid contributions to the theory and analysis of multistable systems (systems with multiple stable states). These multiple stable states naturally lead to new prospects for tailored meta-materials and new liquid crystal-based technologies with enhanced properties, and some of the crucial insights stemmed from my PhD work with Hewlett Packard, at the University of Bristol.”

Alongside her research, Majumdar is committed to training the next generation of researchers in mathematical skills, and mentoring researchers from minority groups. “I have engaged with junior researchers in the UK, Europe, India, China, USA and Mexico in mathematical modelling and applications of mathematics to real-life questions. This is an invaluable transferable skill, often at the heart of several research and development questions.”

“I have also mentored female researchers in India, China and Mexico; and have led international workshops in Chile, Mexico, USA, Canada and UK,” Majumdar continued. “These activities create substantial opportunities for junior researchers, especially women and researchers from developing countries and I hope to co-lead a new international network for women in partial differential equations and their applications, in 2021.”

“Talent is a by-product of hard work”

Majumdar’s dedication to diversity was recognised by the FDM Everywoman in Technology Academic Leader award in 2019. Going forward, Majumdar believes that to achieve greater inclusivity in mathematics, talent needs to have a broader definition. “There are researchers who might feel that ‘ideas’ are more important than ‘methods’ or ‘technical calculations’, or at least, they might inadvertently give that impression to their audience. Actually, both are intricately connected and one cannot have ideas without technicalities and vice-versa. In fact, one cannot bring ideas to fruition without techniques. Creativity is subjective, as is the notion of talent, and we need to embrace diverse scientific contributions and how they add to scientific breakthroughs, to make people feel welcome and included in STEM arenas.”

“I would advise young women in STEM to believe in themselves, their ambitions, their vision and their research agenda, regardless of approval or external opinions. My second piece of advice is that talent is a by-product of hard work,” Majumdar concluded.

The Suffrage Science Maths and Computing Awards 2020 were held on Friday 6th November, 2020. You can find out more, and watch a recording of the event, here.

Hear more about previous Suffrage Science Awardees on the Suffrage Science Podcast. You can subscribe on Podbean, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.