Mathematician Dr. Asha Rao fought hard throughout her career to shatter glass ceilings – and now encourages other women to join the party.
“I have always loved mathematics – ever since I can remember,” Rao told SEEMA from her home in Melbourne, Australia. “I wouldn’t say that math came easy to me, but my love for the subject was inherent. I would spend hours working through school textbooks, losing myself in the unimaginable thrill I got from working through a problem, regardless of whether or not I got it right.”
Starting her career in 1992 as an associate lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Rao has climbed the academic ladder to become a professor in 2016. She is now associate dean of mathematical sciences at RMIT and is the interim director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) where she provides leadership and guidance to improve mathematical skills in Australia.
Rao has fond memories of her childhood, growing up in India with her parents and two brothers.
“As a young girl, I learned a lot from my mother. I remember having to master a completely new language at school in Bangalore, in addition to English and Hindi – Kannada,” she said. “My ability to go from not knowing a word of the language, either verbal or written, to being proficient to the point where my friends (who were native speakers) would ask me for help was all due to my mother. Her patience and persistence over the course of three intense months really made me appreciate the importance of empathy. Even today, with my own students, I recognize how important it is for me to be empathetic because we never truly know what another is going through.”
After completing her undergraduate degree in science, her focus being physics, chemistry and mathematics, Rao was eager to begin post-graduate studies. But, like many young Indian women in the early 80s, she was expected to get married and start a family. But Rao set out to challenge the status quo.
Four years later, with a two-and-a-half-year-old son in tow, Rao successfully completed her master’s in mathematics, ranking third in a class of 125 students, most of whom were men.
“Everyone laughed at me, can you believe it? I had friends and extended family who told me I wouldn’t be able to do it, especially not with a child,” Rao told SEEMA. “My parents were my biggest support during this time. I learned a very important lesson here, and that is to never let other people dictate how you should achieve your goals and when you should achieve them. Since then, whenever someone told me I couldn’t achieve something, I would make it a point to show them I could.
“At this point, mathematics came as fluently to me as English, Hindi or any of the other languages I had picked up over the years and I was excited to pursue this as a career. I see mathematics as the language of nature, or the universe, where you construct a formula just as you would construct a sentence, bringing together patterns and concepts to convey a message and tell a story.”
After completing her PhD in algebra from the University of Pune, Rao migrated to Australia with her family.
“I was really excited! I had read so much about the place and knew there was a lot of potential to grow as a person and as an academic. I was ready for the next chapter of my life,” she said.
Starting a career as a researcher in Australia came with its own set of hurdles. Rao may not have faced judgmental relatives or friends, but she did face the harsh realities of a siloed industry where who you knew was as important as what you knew.
“I began my career in Australia researching a very niche and relatively unexplored concept called communication theory,” she said, explaining her work. “The theory itself is the study of the technical processes underpinning the transmission of information from one source to another. For example, if there is a line from the White House to the Kremlin, the messages being transmitted are highly sensitive and therefore we need to be able to quickly detect and correct interruptions in transmission. This ability to automatically detect errors and resolve them is the basis of communication theory. Another example of the application of this theory is the self-detection and correction of errors by satellites in space. There is no time for the message to be sent back to Earth for correction and hence, the satellite needs to be coded in a way where it can undertake the entire process automatically. ”
No one that Rao knew then was working in this area, which made it very difficult for her to gain credibility in the wider research community, and so get published.
“I remember receiving feedback from one of my referees who basically told me I was incredibly naïve to think I could work in this area, ” she said.
These realities had significant effects on the opportunities Rao got.
“I was in the process of applying for a promotion to become associate professor of mathematics. I was met with blatant rejection, purely because I was not as well known in the space as others who came before me,” Rao told SEEMA. “For a long time, I felt defeated. I had lost confidence in myself and in my abilities. It was a difficult time but I would also say it was a turning point in my life. I was forced to do a lot of self-reflection [and] remind myself again that no one should have the power to make me feel inferior.”
Rao took the rejection as an opportunity to continue to explore new avenues of research, branching out of communication theory into areas such as cybersecurity, communication technologies, social media, architecture and business management. Her research has significantly contributed to the development of solutions for such issues as fraud and money-laundering.
“I describe myself as a transdisciplinary researcher, which means that I work in a lot of different areas within mathematics – and even beyond that,” she said. “Our ability to apply mathematical concepts to solve some of the most complex issues we face in society today is a testimony to the fact that mathematics underpins everything we do, whether it is making a business decision about implementing a cybersecurity software to uncovering years of money-laundering or even to understanding the role of social media in influencing political outcomes.”
The United Nations recognized Rao’s work as a multi-disciplinary researcher when it invited her to attend its second Intergovernmental meeting on cybercrime, held in Vienna, Austria, in 2013. She continues to represent RMIT there every year.
“I was so happy with where I was in my life and with the decisions I had been making that when the promotion eventually came, I was no longer afraid of rejection. By then I was past seeking validation and praise from others,” Rao told SEEMA.
Now a nationally and internationally recognized leader in mathematics, Rao has one crucial piece of advice for young women looking to venture into the world of STEM:
“I know this much for sure; nothing ever comes easy. That is one lesson I have carried with me throughout my life,” Rao told SEEMA. “There is a very famous saying in the Bhagavad Gita … where the god Krishna says to his cousin Arjuna, ‘You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of your labor.’ Essentially what this encourages one to do is find pleasure in the work itself and not be driven by the want for success and recognition. They may come, but they may not, because you cannot control how others perceive you. What you can control is the decisions you make to ensure you find happiness and a sense of fulfillment in the work you do and the life you lead.”
She summed up that worldview in one sentence: “So, whatever you do, make sure you do it with a strong sense of purpose; not because you have to but because you want to.”