It's in the numbers

14 November 2017 | General News
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Prof Gan has been conferred the President’s Science Award for his pioneering development of a mathematical theorem (Photo: Agency for Science, Technology and Research)

NUS Mathematics Distinguished Professor Gan Wee Teck has been accorded the prestigious President’s Science Award for his illustrious contributions to the field of mathematics. Prof Gan was presented with the award at the Istana on 13 November by Madam Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore during the annual President’s Science and Technology Awards (PSTA) ceremony, organised by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). 

Prof Gan’s flair for mathematics came naturally from an early age, though his passion developed later. His interest in the discipline was sparked by his secondary school teacher who introduced him to mathematics beyond the textbooks. In 1988 when he was in Secondary 4, Prof Gan was selected for the International Math Olympiad training, which was when he began to pursue the subject more seriously.

“It was also when I sort of realised that my dream of becoming a professional football player was not going to pan out,” said Prof Gan jokingly. 

Prof Gan’s work on the Langlands programme and the Gan-Gross-Prasad conjecture which bears his name has helped to link the mathematical fields of number theory and representation theory. Number theory deals with the properties of numbers, their patterns and their relationships, while representation theory deals with the study of symmetries in algebraic structures. His groundbreaking contributions towards linking the two fields meant that mathematicians could potentially use tools and results from one field to solve problems in the other.

This led to a surge in research activities by others and helped to resolve several mathematical enigmas, such as proving a 40-year-old theory hypothesised by renowned mathematician Roger Howe, known as Howe’s Duality Conjecture. It could also have real-world implications since mathematics is at the foundation of modern technologies like computing, artificial intelligence and precision engineering. Similarly, what is purely academic today could form the basis for technology of tomorrow.

Many have the impression that there is no more mathematics to be discovered. Contrary to this, there are many questions, even about ordinary numbers, for which we do not know the answers. There is also much more mathematical research being done today than in any other time in history.

Prof Gan hopes to initiate new research directions in the future. “Many have the impression that there is no more mathematics to be discovered. Contrary to this, there are many questions, even about ordinary numbers, for which we do not know the answers. There is also much more mathematical research being done today than in any other time in history,” he said.

Prof Gan, who joined the Department in 2010, has an impressive list of accolades to his name, including the prestigious American Math Society Centennial Fellowship and the Sloan Research Fellowship. He was also conferred the Outstanding Researcher Award at the 2015 NUS University Awards.

Of his latest achievement he said, “I am deeply honoured and pleasantly surprised to receive the President’s Science Award as it is not easy for others to appreciate a mathematical result, as opposed to a breakthrough in some more applicable area. I feel that it is a recognition not just for myself, but for the Singapore mathematics community.”

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Mdm Halimah presenting the award to Prof Gan at the PSTA ceremony (Photo: Agency for Science, Technology and Research)

This year’s PSTA also saw Lien Ying Chow Professor of Medicine Edward Holmes from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine) receive the President’s Science and Technology Medal for his work in developing the physical and social infrastructure that galvanised translational and clinical research in Singapore’s health and biomedical sciences sector.

Prof Holmes, who is also a Senior Fellow at A*STAR and an Advisor to the National Research Foundation and the Ministry of Health, is a world-renowned academic leader in translational and clinical research and has held leadership positions across Duke University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, San Diego. For his extensive contributions and valuable services to Singapore, he was conferred Honorary Citizenship in 2011.

Adjunct Assistant Professor Li Jingmei from NUS Medicine and Senior Research Scientist at the Genome Institute of Singapore was honoured with the Young Scientist Award in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Category.

Asst Prof Jingmei graduated from NUS Science as Valedictorian in 2006, before proceeding to do her post-graduate studies at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Her research is dedicated to predicting, preventing and improving care for breast cancer — the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in Singapore — by discovering novel susceptibility markers and mechanisms as well as genetic differences in mammographic density that identify those at risk of developing the disease. The NUS Overseas Colleges programme alumna was awarded a $54,000 (US$40,000) grant as part of the UNESCO-L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowship in 2014 and a National Research Foundation Fellowship Award in 2017.