New lecturer goes with the flow

23 August 2018
Dr Azam Asanjarani, Department of Statistics
Dr Azam Asanjarani

Newly-appointed lecturer Azam Asanjarani spends her days working on problems to do with queueing. We’re talking here about traffic jams, healthcare waiting lists, internet congestion and the like, all of which can be simulated on a computer.

Her research focuses on how to make the right decisions to optimise systems involving queues of things like cars, or data, or people.

A real-world application of this type of research is tweaking a hospital’s surgery schedule to reduce waiting time even when there are variables that can’t be predicted, such as the unexpected arrival of an accident victim who needs to go straight into theatre, or the length of time a particular operation might take. Another application is optimising a traffic-light system or bus network to reduce traffic jams when there is only partial information about what’s happening on the roads.

Azam solves these problems using applied probability tools and methods, such as Markov processes, matrix analytic methods and phase type distributions, as well as optimisation methods and applied statistics.

Azam’s love for maths came about in her teens.

“One of my excellent math teachers introduced me a collection of challenging and interesting math problem books that brought me to the fantastic world of mathematics.”

To describe what happened next, she quotes the late, noted Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win math’s Fields Medal: “The more I spent time on maths, the more excited I got.”

Azam is of Maryam Mirzakhani’s generation; she’s proud that the Fields Medal, which is awarded to under-40s, has just gone to another Iranian, Caucher Birkar. Azam observes, only half-joking, that Iran’s reputation for producing young, talented mathematicians might have something to do with the turmoil that her cohort endured growing up: “Maybe my generation, growing up in the Iran-Iraq war, found some peace in the beauty of mathematics ...”

Azam holds two doctorates – one in pure mathematics from Iran and the second in applied mathematics and statistics from the University of Queensland, awarded last year. The second came about after Azam and her husband Sassan Ahmadzadeh, an engineer, decided to migrate to Australia.

“I decided to go for a more applicable kind of mathematics and as I aimed to have an academic job in future, I decided to start the PhD in applied probability,” Azam recalls. “It gave me the opportunity to become familiar with Australian academic system of education, which is similar to the New Zealand system.”

She then took up a postdoctoral position at the University of Melbourne’s applied probability group.

Azam first came to New Zealand in December 2016 to present at a conference in  Wellington.

“After that conference, Sassan joined me for a 10-day trip to the South Island. Nice people, delicious food, beautiful nature and the peaceful and calm environment – we are nature lovers.”

She was attracted to the Department of Statistics by the “world ranking of the statistics department and because it was the pioneer of R statistical software.”  

Azam says her goal and ambition “is to become a world-class researcher in the field of applied probability”. As a lecturer, she hopes to foster a love for maths and statistics “through creative teaching that stimulates students’ curiosity.” This year, Azam is teaching Bayesian statistics (STATS331) and teaching probability (STATS125).