Applied maths to the rescue: the Jack Powers story 

Mathematics, the universal language, possesses the unique capability to unlock mysteries across disciplines, from the precision of science to the fluidity of sports.

At the forefront of this exploration is QUT PhD student, Jack Powers, who demonstrates that with a solid foundation in mathematics, the possibilities are boundless. As part of our Trailblazers series, this profile celebrates a mathematician who applies his expertise to optimise healthcare systems and enhance his approach to soccer refereeing, exemplifying mathematics’ transformative power in various realms.

Trailblazers: From academic insights to real-world impacts 
Navigating the many educational pathways to becoming an impactful scientist can be challenging. So to help you understand your options and share a little inspiration for your journey, Cosmos Magazine interviewed five trailblazing scientists who’ve demonstrated academic excellence and whose research is producing elegant solutions to some of the most challenging problems of our time. Read the full series here.

At the heart of Jack academic journey lies a profound dedication to harnessing the power of mathematics to address complex, real-world problems. However, Jack’s pathway to research hasn’t been exactly linear.

Aspiring Australian PhD students will usually first complete an honours year or a master-level degree to gain foundational research skills. And while he did commence an MPhil program, Jack, and his supervisors, Associate Professor Paul Corry and Professor James McGree, soon realised his chosen research topic had more depth than could be covered in an MPhil. His seamless transition to a PhD program, despite the absence of traditional research experience, underscores his exceptional analytical capabilities and innovative mindset.

Jack’s research focuses on the critical issue of optimising the way patients move through elective surgery waiting lists. Currently, category one patients are disproportionately prioritised, meaning category three patients often have to wait an inordinately long time before they can access the surgery they need. By developing a dynamic priority scoring system, Jack is giving hospitals a more objective method of equitably prioritising patients. 

Graphs showing how applied maths, via dynamic priority scoring, allows all patients to move equitably through an elective surgery waiting list.

This work is pivotal, aiming to streamline healthcare processes and enhance the efficiency of surgical operations. By applying mathematical models to healthcare management, Jack’s research offers hope for more equitable waiting times and improved allocation of surgical resources. His endeavour not only showcases the practical applications of data science and operations research in healthcare but also highlights how mathematics can make a tangible difference in people’s lives.

The game plan — merging applied maths research and passions

Beyond academia, Jack nurtures an equally compelling passion — soccer refereeing — with aspirations to officiate at the professional level. And he’s already planning ways to leverage his research to improve the experience of community and professional referees demonstrating the transferability of using mathematics and data science to solve real-world problems.

While students, academics, and scientists in industry can sometimes find achieving a healthy work-life balance challenging, Jack is living proof that pursuing even intense and time-sensitive hobbies alongside further study is possible. Sometimes the two can even combine.

This blend of interests also underscores the versatility and applicability of mathematical principles across a variety of sectors.

Be inspired to study maths

Outside of his studies, Jack is involved in a number of high school engagement programs, such as the QUT Mathematics Summer School. A key part of these programs is showing high school students where a degree in mathematics can take you. Industry guests and mathematicians are often invited to speak to students and their parents about what they do and how they use applied maths to solve problems in the real world. The key message is that a maths degree teaches foundational skills that can be used to solve problems in any field, just like Jack’s doing with his hospital and refereeing work, meaning job opportunities for mathematicians are almost endless. So, if you have a love of mathematics, explore how you can develop your skills with a maths degree at QUT. And if you’re interested in taking your degree to the next level, explore pathways to research at QUT.

Trailblazers profile

Subject matter expertise:

  • Mathematics
  • Data science

Academic background:

Alternative educational pathways:

Since Jack started his masters, QUT has introduced new vertical double degrees that allow students to complete a bachelor degree and masters in a shorter period of time. QUT offers a vertical Bachelor of Mathematics + Master of Data Analytics course, as well as several maths and data science double degrees, which deliver similar skill sets to those Jack obtained through his pathway.

Current work:

  • Managing surgical waiting lists through dynamic priority scoring was published in the journal Health Care Management Science in June 2023 based on the first phase of Jack’s PhD research. It details a more objective method of ranking elective surgery patients based on a combination of waiting time and clinical factors to allow for more equitable surgical admissions using a priority formula.
  • The next phase of Jack’s research explores how this methodology can be adapted to more accurately compare patients with differing conditions and severities, as well as exploring how different priority formulas affect waiting times.

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