10 out of 200: From fashion to science – Pantea Pooladvand uses math to fight cancer

Meet Pantea Pooladvand, mathematician and one of this year’s 10 out of 200 young researchers participating in the 6th Heidelberg Laureate Forum from September 23-28, 2018.

Photo courtesy of Pantea Pooladvand

What is your name and nationality?
My name is Pantea Pooladvand and I’m from Australia.

Where did you study and where are you currently based?
For my bachelor’s degree, I studied by distance through Murdoch University, Perth. I completed my undergraduate Honours degree at the University of Sydney where I’m now currently based.

What is your current position?
I’m a PhD. student at the University of Sydney and I am also part of the academic teaching staff, tutoring and lecturing in first year mathematics.

What is the focus of your research? What is your research project?
I work in the field of biomathematics, specifically modelling the growth and invasion of solid tumours. My project focuses on the interaction between tumour cells and the tumour environment and how this interaction affects the outcome of tumour progression. Recently, I’ve focused my research on epithelial ovarian cancer. This cancer, very efficiently, remodels its environment to promote growth and metastasis. In collaboration with our biological partners, and by building computational mathematical models, it is my hope that we can better understand this disease and provide new novel treatment strategies in the not too distant future.

Why did you become a mathematician?
Mathematics affords me the tools to explore problems and questions that interest me. What’s funny about this, is that I’m learning that I always need more tools to tackle the problems! This is what’s great about mathematics, you are always learning. Being a mathematician also means I can work in a creative and collaborative environment. My field of mathematical oncology is always evolving and very dynamic. It is deeply satisfying to be part of this global community.

What are some of the fundamental challenges you have faced in your academic career?
Distance education was a very challenging time for me. I remember receiving a box of broken equipment every semester by post so that I could complete the experimental component of my physics degree. I would find novel ways of putting the equipment together to gather the experimental results I needed. It taught me patience and resilience, but just as importantly I learnt the value of collaboration and team work. More recently, working in a cross-disciplinary field of mathematics and biology has raised its own challenges, teaching me to seek effective ways to communicate with our biological partners. However, I very much welcome this challenge as this partnership is crucial in the advancement of oncology.

What do you feel are the greatest pressures facing scientists today?
From my own limited experience, we are working in a highly competitive environment with uncertain career prospects. This pressure can limit creativity as the focus can shift from innovative work to publications. Those who find the pressure too great may leave academics and opt for a different path.

What are you doing besides research?
I am the owner of a small tutoring studio where I tutor high school students in mathematics alongside an ex-student of mine who is now undertaking her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and biology. I am very proud of the space I have created. It is a fun and interactive environment. My mission is to develop my students to become independent learners. I want them to feel comfortable exploring problems and experimenting with different methods of solving problems. I take great joy when students decide to follow a path in mathematics or science.
I live in beautiful, sunny Sydney so I love to get down to the beach at sunrise for a swim or a surf. Nothing compares to a Sydney morning by the beach! I welcome you all to visit us and experience this for yourselves.

How did you hear about the HLF and why did you apply?
My supervisor informed me about the forum. I applied because this is a unique opportunity. Meeting the laureates and speaking with other young researchers will be an invaluable experience for me. My work heavily relies on computational analysis so the interdisciplinary nature of this event is very relevant to me, therefore, I’m interested in meeting and speaking with people attending from not just the field of mathematics, but also from computer science.

What do you expect from this meeting?
I love experiencing more of the world through the eyes of others and this is especially true when it comes to the laureates. I am looking forward to speaking with the laureates about their experiences and building new friendships and collaborations with the other young researchers. I’m eager to share my ideas and hear about new and exciting ventures. I expect this will be a one-of-a-kind experience.

Which laureates present at the forum would you really like to talk to and what do you want to ask them?
I love the story behind how Endre Szemerédi came to be a mathematician. I would very much like to speak with him about how he made this journey and whether he feels he would have followed a similar path if he had been able to follow his original interest in number theory. I would also like to meet Wendelin Werner. He is an expert in probability theory and it would be great to speak with him about physical and biological applications of stochastic processes deriving from random walks.

Who were your most important mentors and what lessons did they pass on to you?
Growing up, my parents were my most important mentors. One of my earliest memories is swimming out in to the middle of the sea with my father. The water beneath me was dark and I was afraid. We stayed out there until my fear had subsided and I was able to relax and take in the scenery. Only then did he allow me to swim back in. This and similar experiences taught me that fear is something that can be controlled, and that courage can only exist where there is fear. My parents taught me to be brave in taking up new challenges and made me feel that I can achieve anything I set my mind to. This is probably why I felt very comfortable in making a drastic career change from fashion to academia. Also my supervisor, Dr. Peter Kim has been an integral part in my development over the last few years. He has encouraged me and supported my research ideas even when they seem too ambitious. He is always reminding me to use my imagination and think outside the box.

After taking an unusual path to academia, what would you recommend young students to do when they start their academic career?
I encourage people to keep an open mind about their careers. Don’t be afraid of change and trust your instincts when something feels right. At the same time, be ready for hard work and be comfortable seeking help and guidance. Don’t shy away from difficult and challenging problems, be excited by them. Learn to collaborate and work effectively with others. Above all, be self-assured that you can succeed.

Jens-Steffen Scherer is a neuroscientist and science communicator. Besides his studies at the University of Oldenburg, he works as an author for the Südwestrundfunk (SWR) and for the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik). In 2018 Jens-Steffen won the 8th Science Slam of Oldenburg. ______________________________________________________________________________________________ Jens-Steffen Scherer ist Neurowissenschaftler und Wissenschaftskommunikator. Neben seinem Studium an der Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg arbeitet er als freier Autor für den Südwestrundfunk (SWR) und beim Nationalen Institut für Wissenschaftskommunikation (NaWik). 2018 gewann Jens-Steffen den 8. Oldenburger Science Slam.

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