'You have to be realistic, dear': How mathematician Nalini Joshi proved them wrong

Professor Nalini Joshi is one of Australia's leading mathematicians and a passionate advocate of gender equality. But her first day in Australia was shocking because of the role "white, tall, handsome men" played.

Nalini Joshi's childhood was a idyllic childhood in many ways, growing up in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in the 1960s.

But from a young age, she sensed her family was different.

"What I remember is the wonderful games, the beautiful people, but always feeling a little bit of an outsider because I wasn't part of the dominant group," she said.

Conscripted into the army, her father was posted to the far-flung Shan States, in the country's west. He was prevent from practicing his chosen profession of medicine, and he yearned for a place that would give his children a good education and a fair go.

"He told me that I used to top most of my classes in primary school but I never got the top prizes at the end of the year. So he knew that there was something going wrong and he wanted to make sure that his family was in place that would be better for their future," Prof Joshi said.

First Day Nalini Joshi
Nalini Joshi and her family migrated to Australia in 1971.
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The family migrated to Australia in 1971, their first day forever etched into memory.

"I remember landing in this building that seemed so sophisticated, so clean, so beautifully built and the people working in there were all white, tall, handsome men, porters pushing baggage around, were white men and that was something that was quite, almost, shocking because in Burma tall white men were the bosses," she said.

At school in Sydney, Nalini excelled and had an insatiable desire to read, working her way through the library shelves. That lead her to science fiction and, in turn, astrophysics.

"I remember telling my careers counsellor that I wanted to be an astronaut and she said, 'oh, you have to be realistic, dear' and when I went to uni and I discovered I could do astronomy through maths I did more mathematics and really became a mathematician as a result," she said.

"We're losing 50 per cent of the talent group that we have naturally available to us if we say that women shouldn't be answering these questions."

From then on, mathematics was the centre of her universe.

"Maths is the underlying framework that allows us to describe everything that we observe in the universe, whether its outside us or inside us," Prof Joshi said.

"It's the only logical language that allows us to compare, analyse and check evidence."

After several academic positions in Australia, she went on to become the first ever female head of maths and science at The University of Sydney's School of Mathematics and Statistics.

She's also become a passionate advocate for gender equality in science.

"We're losing 50 per cent of the talent group that we have naturally available to us if we say that women shouldn't be answering these questions. That's just a no-brainer," Prof Joshi said.

The maths professor hopes that her journey will inspire others.

"I'm usually the only one with a different skin colour to the rest," she said. "By being there and showing you can go forward, to be driven by a passion, to go ahead and do the things that will benefit society, so I hope that I've been a role model."