Professor of Mathematics, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

BSc Hons 1991 MSc 1992

I formally enrolled at Flinders in 1989, although I had been informally attending some maths classes there during my last few years of high school, by special arrangement with the Maths School.

It was a very friendly atmosphere, and despite being significantly younger than most of the students, I felt quite welcome.

The Maths School offered an excellent undergraduate education which prepared me quite well for graduate study at Princeton when I finished my BSc(Hons) and MSc at Flinders in 1991.

I am especially indebted to the chair at the time, Garth Gaudry, who also became my MSc supervisor and remains a good friend to this day. For my studies I also received a University Medal in 1992.

I don't have any magical ability. I look at a problem, and if it looks something like one I've done before; I think maybe the idea that worked before will work here. If nothing's working out; then you think of a small trick that makes it a little better but still is not quite right.

I play with the problem, and after a while, I figure out what's going on. Most people, faced with a math problem, will try to solve the problem directly. Even if they get it, they might not understand exactly what they did.

Before I work out any details, I work on the strategy. Once you have a strategy, a very complicated problem can split up into a lot of mini-problems. I've never really been satisfied with just solving the problem. I want to see what happens if I make some changes; will it still work?

If you experiment enough, you get a deeper understanding. After a while, when something similar comes along, you get an idea of what works and what doesn't work. It's not about being smart or even fast. It's like climbing a cliff: If you're very strong and quick and have a lot of rope, it helps, but you need to devise a good route to get up there.

Doing calculations quickly and knowing a lot of facts are like a rock climber with strength, quickness and good tools. You still need a plan — that's the hard part — and you have to see the bigger picture.

Terence Tao became the first mathematics professor in UCLA history to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, often described as the ‘Nobel Prize in mathematics’, during the opening ceremony of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid on 22 August 2006.

In the 70 years the prize has been awarded by the International Mathematical Union, only 48 researchers ever have won it. He is first scholar appointed to UCLA's James and Carol Collins endowed Chair in the College of Letters and Science.