It all adds up
A chance to work in the airline industry propelled Professor Natashia Boland’s research career.
Every time you step onto a plane, approximately 10 different mathematical models have been solved to ensure your flight schedule proceeds smoothly and cost-effectively, involving everything from organising the crew roster to deciding the ticket price.
It is a perfect example of mathematics at work, says Professor Natashia Boland, whose experience in computer modelling for airlines as a young PhD student opened her eyes to the scope of real-world applications for her tertiary maths and computer science qualifications.
A world-leading operations researcher, Boland is one of Australia’s foremost authorities on integer programming, the field of mathematical optimisation and feasibility.
She has turned her considerable skills to solving logistical problems and optimising performance in fields as diverse as robotics, telecommunications, radiotherapy, mining, military deployment and supply chain management.
Boland joined the University of Newcastle’s School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences as a professor in 2008, a valuable appointment that has already paid dividends.
Newcastle was ranked the top university in the country in the field of Applied Mathematics this year by the Excellence in Research Australia assessment. Boland describes the achievement as a team effort, with schools from across the University contributing to the successful submission.
“I hope it signals to potential students, both local and international, that this is a great place to be a researcher in applied maths,” Boland says.
She is also an associate director of the groundbreaking Priority Research Centre for Computer-Assisted Research Mathematics and its Applications (CARMA), a group unique to Australia and one of only a few in the world that explores the use of computer applications to enhance the understanding of high-end maths.
Boland’s interest in applying mathematics in industry began as a PhD student when she had the opportunity to design a program to automate the complicated task of airline crew scheduling. This was pioneering work in the early 1990s that ultimately brought her under the wing of one of the founding fathers of integer programming, George Nemhauser, and led to a stint at the prestigious American research university Georgia Tech.
Airline planning has remained a career interest for Boland, who is now passing her expertise onto emerging researchers. One Newcastle-based PhD student she supervises is working on methods to improve the optimisation models Boland helped devise two decades ago.
“Most planning in airlines is completed in a highly sequential way: you determine a flight schedule, then select the aircraft for the schedule, next a crew is assigned, relief crews are added and so on. At each stage, planners try to find a minimum-cost and maximum-utilisation solution,” she explains.
“It is easy to optimise each stage individually, but evidence demonstrates that if you look at one stage at a time you achieve, overall, less than the optimum solution. We are researching integrated planning – trying to simultaneously plan the actions of aircraft, crew and maintenance to achieve those cost and utilisation benefits.”
In another industrial application of her algorithmic research, Boland is working with the Hunter Valley Coal Chain Coordinator to optimise the annual movement of more than 100 million tonnes of coal from 35 mines along rail lines and through the Port of Newcastle.
“It is a massive planning challenge,” she says. “The coal chain involves many providers who share infrastructure. In addition, they need to factor in maintenance and other users of the infrastructure, such as passenger trains.
“Our challenge is to help them build models that will assess alternative options and automatically find the most efficient way to address planning challenges. We conduct the mathematical research behind the software.”
Boland considers the University’s strong relationship with the local community to be one of its strengths.
“In Newcastle, everybody you meet in business or anywhere in the community knows the University, they have a friend or relative who is involved with the University and when we talk to business people the response is, ‘How can we help, how can we be involved?’
“I have been bowled over by the support we get from industry for our research projects. I have never experienced anything like it anywhere else in Australia.”