Po-Shen Loh’s visit to SMRI: How do brain emojis relate to mathematical thinking and kindness?

During May, mathematician Po-Shen Loh was a guest of SMRI and presented at events in Sydney and Melbourne. At the University of Sydney, this included: a public lecture moderated by SMRI visiting researcher Francis Su (view the recording and photo gallery below), a high school workshop, and a perspectives seminar.

On the day of the public lecture, by 5:25 pm around 200 people were already waiting in the lecture theater, with the front rows already occupied by eager school students. Many were already familiar with Po-Shen from his Daily Challenge YouTube series, a popular place for high school students to cut their teeth on the latest math problem.

Po-Shen’s public lecture was both an overview of the landscape of his research and an exploration of his philosophies on life, including his two axioms: the importance of delighting others, and the satisfaction that comes from hard work. Po-Shen opened the lecture by explaining that the last time he was in Australia was in March 2020, just before the borders closed. He hadn’t been able to return until now, as part of a 100-stop world tour including talks delivered in both English and Mandarin.

March 2020 was a milestone for Po-Shen. He explained how, as part of his Hertz Fellowship, ‘the maths guy’ could help contribute to the problem of disease management as COVID-19 spread across the globe. The culmination of this cross-disciplinary project was an app developed closely with UX professionals. Rather than relying on people’s good intentions to minimize disease spread, the app works by visualizing the decrease in distance (close contacts) separating you from exposure to disease. Graph theory and an understanding of networks and incentive misalignment was key to the development. When the next pandemic inevitably arises, this app may reshape our response to disease management and highlights how mathematical concepts can be applied to pressing real-world problems.

Po-Shen also presented a public lecture at Monash University in Melbourne, which was moderated by Norm Do, lecturer at Monash and current director of the National Maths Summer School. More than 200 people attended, and the event was as popular with school students as the public events in Sydney. Jennifer Bowden, CEO of the Mathematical Association of Victoria brought her enthusiastic 11-year old, and reported that Po-Shen, ‘has a remarkable knack for communicating mathematics in a way that engages all audiences. Po-Shen is a social justice warrior for mathematics education, and his mission to raise the bar and make mathematics relevant to everyone resonated deeply with my own mission. His talk and his programs are truly inspiring, and I look forward to working with him in the future.’ Other attendees reflected on the energy and enthusiasm Po-Shen brought to the conversation, which engaged audience members across the spectrum.

Throughout his lecture series, Po-Shen meditated on the importance of nurturing kindness. On one of his educational platforms, ‘likes’ are replaced with brain emojis, rewarded to students who help their peers understand how to solve a problem with an explanation that is kind as well as helpful. Po-Shen’s inventions unite a perceived need in one area with a surplus of expertise in another, with a happy result for both parties (delight!). Emphasizing traits such as kindness and humanity, he argued, are key to navigating and surviving a world with widespread use of artificial intelligence.

Po-Shen is a social entrepreneur, who emphasizes the importance of thoughtfulness. This is evident through his programs, which help young people who excel in the mathematical sciences to develop the charisma to be convincing to the wider population, empowering them to teach, lead, and problem-solve in the future. By finally returning to Australia post-COVID, he hoped to spread the word about the importance of math and mathematical thinking in the future. Judging by the enthusiasm of the audience across the week, his message resonated: mathematical thinking coupled with a desire to do good in the world will become more relevant than ever.

Watch the recording of the SMRI public lecture:

Speaker bioPo-Shen Loh is a mathematics professor, social entrepreneur and inventor, working across the spectrum of mathematics, education, and healthcare, all around the world. He holds a PhD from Princeton University and is a mathematics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He served a decade-long term as the national coach of the USA International Mathematical Olympiad team from 2013–2023. He has pioneered innovations ranging from a scalable way to learn challenging math live online at comparable engagement to live-streaming entertainment, to a new way to control pandemics by leveraging self-interest. His work has appeared in national and international media, from ABC News, to the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Straits Times, and more.

Photo gallery

Photos by Jayne Ion.

Catherine Meister