Mathematician wins nat'l research award

Mathematics Prof. Michael Ward has been awarded one of Canada's top research awards, a 1998 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship.

"Dr. Ward is leading an international renaissance in applied mathematics, a field that is growing in importance because it provides hard numerical answers for difficult problems in science, engineering and industry," said Thomas Brzustowski, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), on announcing the fellowship recently.

Applied mathematics in the context of Ward's research involves using mathematics to explore gradual changes in the physical properties of materials such as metal alloys.

Ward has explored his field in depth, analysing and developing new models that are being used in areas such as materials science, biology, combustion, fluid mechanics and predicting the performance of semiconductor devices.

"His ability to see the mathematical structure of real world problems, to conceive solutions and to inspire others by his approach, is truly remarkable," Brzustowski said.

Ward made his mark internationally in classical applied mathematics and particularly asymptotic analysis -- which allows analysis of very complex models in simpler terms by making rational and systematic approximations to the equations that model a phenomenon. These models for analysis may represent, for example, the high speed flow of air past airplane wings, or the flow of a very viscous fluid.

He has also made major theoretical advances in the theory of metastability. Metastable processes influence outcomes in many physical systems, but occur very slowly, taking so long to develop that they are impossible to track numerically. Ward cites changes in the atomic composition of metal alloys over 20 to 40 years as an example.

Ward's methods for analysing these processes have evolved into a new mathematical technique in wide use.

With his Steacie Fellowship, he plans to investigate other classes of very practical diffusion problems including changes in chemical reactions that occur around a defect on a reacting surface, the formation of hot spots in heated ceramics, and the diffusion of oxygen through small capillaries to muscle cells.

While different phenomena, for Ward they all share a common mathematical thread: they are not in a true steady-state but instead change very slowly in time.

"It is usually very difficult to distinguish strictly stationary solutions from those that are only quasi-stationary," Ward says. "This distinction is, however, very important over very long time intervals, as the ultimate state of the system may be radically different."

The NSERC fellowship is one of four awarded each year. The honour is given to university researchers who are capable of capturing international attention for outstanding scientific or engineering achievement.

Under the terms of the fellowship, NSERC will provide UBC with the full amount of Ward's salary for up to two years. The fellowship will allow him to pursue his research full-time, as well as to obtain new research funding from NSERC.

The E.W.R. Steacie Fellowships will be presented by Gov. Gen. Romeo LeBlanc in Ottawa April 27.

The three other 1998 Steacie fellows are Sara Iverson, Biology, Dalhousie University; Jonathan Schaeffer, Computing Science, University of Alberta; and Louis Taillefer, Physics, McGill University.