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Covid-19 modelling expert wins international maths medal

27 May 2021

University of Canterbury Professor Michael Plank, who has co-led essential Covid-19 modelling work in New Zealand, has won an Australasian award for outstanding research, expertise and distinguished service in the field of Applied Mathematics.


Award-winning mathematician Professor Michael Plank will speak about his work in a free UC Connect public discussion of how maths, science and the law fought Covid-19, at the University of Canterbury on 11 August 2021.

Professor Plank, of UC’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, was awarded the Australia and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ANZIAM) EO Tuck Medal for 2021.

Last month, he was part of the New Zealand research team that won the prestigious Prime Minister’s Science Prize for the mathematical simulation of Covid-19 infection modelling and communication work.

Alongside the urgent research they undertook, he and other academic researchers have shared their knowledge with the wider public on how to tackle Covid-19, writing about it for the public numerous times throughout the past year.

Professor Plank has been especially effective and diligent in taking time to explain the mathematical modelling and analysis behind the Government’s science-based response to Covid-19 to New Zealanders via the media.

UC’s Head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Clemency Montelle, says she is thrilled that Professor Plank has been recognised with this honour. “His sustained and significant contributions in the field of applied mathematics for over a decade culminated last year with his key role in New Zealand’s Covid response, producing a triumvirate of science impact: world-leading science, clear communication, and lightning speed,” she says.

Mathematical modelling has played a key part in understanding and responding to the pandemic in countries around the world, helping to prompt government action. These and other models were used to help inform the New Zealand government’s response in areas such as contact tracing, border management, testing, and outbreak control.

Professor Plank will speak about his work in a free UC Connect public discussion of how maths, science and the law fought Covid-19, at the University of Canterbury’s Ilam campus on 11 August 2021. 

From the ANZIAM Citation for the EO Tuck Medal:

Professor Michael Plank, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, has a record of outstanding research in, and distinguished service to, applied mathematics. He is a committed leader in the ANZIAM community.

Mike is an expert in mathematical modelling of complex biological and social systems at multiple scales from intracellular signalling and collective cell behaviour through to large ecosystem dynamics. His research is transdisciplinary and application‐driven, employing mechanistic and stochastic mathematical modelling to give insight into underlying mechanisms. His publications are a blend of novel methods and results in applied mathematics, and application‐focused models that have impact in other disciplines and outside academia.

Mike has 103 papers published in diverse top-ranking multidisciplinary journals including Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Physical Review E, Ecology Letters, Journal of the Royal Society Interface, International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) Journal of Marine Science, Neurocomputing, and more. His review paper on random walks in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface is the go‐to paper for researchers using random walks to model biological processes and has almost 1,200 citations (Google Scholar). His paper in Nature coupled a nonlinear differential equation model with random matrix theory to provide a new explanation for why complex ecosystems exist in reality, despite a long-standing theory that high-dimensional ecosystem models cannot be stable. Invitations to speak include at the International Conference on Mathematical Sciences and Technology in Malaysia, workshops at the Banff International Research Station and UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, the Asia‐Pacific Forum “Math for Industry”, and ANZIAM conferences. Furthermore, Mike has been successful in securing significant competitive external research funding. He is a Principal Investigator and one of four research theme leaders at Te Pūnaha Matatini (Centre for Complex Systems), one of 10 New Zealand Centres of Research Excellence that have been re-funded for 2021‐28, and has been a Principal Investigator on two Marsden grants and a Partner Investigator on two ARC Discovery Projects.

Mike’s research has significant impact in industry and government, both in New Zealand (NZ) and internationally. He is a member of the NZ Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor expert panel “Towards a vision for fisheries in New Zealand in 2040”. His ongoing research on balanced fishing has been cited in reports by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and discussed in a forum at the European Union Parliament. His research on social networks of at‐risk children has been influential in the NZ Ministry for Children and led to an invitation to present at the International Congress on the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect in 2019.

Mike also co‐leads the team modelling Covid‐19 in NZ and advising the government on its policy and operational response. In March 2020, he led the development of a stochastic, age-structured branching process model, driven by data on Covid-19 cases imported into NZ by international travellers. This model quickly became, and remains, one of the main tools for modelling the spread and control of Covid‐19 in NZ. Mike’s team was seconded by the National Crisis Management Centre, regularly briefs Cabinet in advance of decisions about changes in Covid-19 Alert Levels and policy settings on testing, contact tracing and border quarantine strategies, and provides weekly real‐time reporting to Health Board planners on current and projected infection rates and healthcare requirements. His work on Covid-19 has also begun to yield research publications. In July 2020, the Prime Minister personally wrote to Mike to thank him for his contribution to New Zealand’s ongoing efforts to eliminate Covid‐19. Furthermore, Mike is an invited member of the Pandemic Response Subgroup of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, an international group of experts promoting the responsible use of algorithms and data to inform public health responses.

Mike also promotes the profession of Applied Mathematics through outreach activities such as public lectures, school enrichment talks and activities on mathematical modelling. Through the Covid-19 pandemic he has appeared in the print and broadcast media numerous times. He has served on NZ’s Marsden and Performance-Based Research Fund panels, has been a member of the Mathematics‐in‐Industry NZ (MINZ) Reference Group since its establishment in 2016 and is on the Organising Committee for MINZ 2021.

Mike also contributes to the development of the next generation of applied mathematicians. He has supervised 5 postdoctoral fellows and 15 PhD and 2 Masters students in a range of application areas, often with collaborators in industry. Many have gone on to jobs in academia, Crown Research Institutes, government or private sector organisations both in NZ and around the world.

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