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School of Mathematical Sciences

Professor Abhishek Saha receives research excellence award

After receiving a research excellence award at this year's Faculty Celebrations, Abhishek spoke to us about his current research activity and shared some great tips on applying for grants.


The Science and Engineering Faculty Celebrations took place in the Octagon on 27th January 2022 to recognise the achievements of staff across all five Schools. Professor of Mathematics, Abhishek Saha, was recognised for his contributions to research in Number Theory, for securing important funding for the School of Mathematical Sciences, and for helping to improve the grant culture within the School.

We caught up with Abhishek after the celebrations to learn more about his research and see what tips he has for staff applying for research grants. 

How difficult was it to establish a new research area in the School?
So my research area is in number theory and automorphic forms. When I joined the School in 2017 along with Steve Lester, we were the only academics in the School in this area. I applied for a Leverhulme Trust Research grant in 2019, which was successful, and it allowed us to recruit a teaching replacement lecturer for a period of 12 months, a postdoc in number theory, and a PhD student in number theory. With support from the then Head of School, we advertised the replacement lecturer from the area of number theory which turned out to be an excellent move; the person we hired as teaching replacement, Shu Sasaki, was subsequently offered a permanent lectureship in number theory with a fellowship from the Principal’s strategic fund! In 2020, Steve and I successfully applied for an EPSRC grant, which allowed us to recruit another postdoc in number theory. Then last year, I was awarded an EPSRC small grant, which came with yet another postdoc. Unfortunately, Steve left for Kings in late 2020, but we have recently hired a young number theorist with a fantastic trajectory who is expected to join us in the autumn. So within a few years, we have established a strong centre for number theory and automorphic forms, and I am really excited about the future.

Do you have advice for staff or colleagues that may wish to do the same in the future?
My main advice would be to apply for grants! I would also advise colleagues to encourage promising, early-career mathematicians in their area to apply for Fellowships with the School.

Do you have any exciting plans for the Number Theory group?
Yes, we have some really exciting plans this May and June. Together with Steve Lester, I am organizing a visitor programme on the theme of analytic aspects of automorphic forms. In this programme, we will invite leading international experts to visit QMUL for a week at a time and each expert will give a series of 3 talks to our number theory group. It is expected that several others from other London universities who are working on analytic aspects of automorphic forms will also attend the talks. We already have confirmed visits from international researchers based around the world, including from USA, France, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Poland.

What is it about Number Theory that you love so much?
The first time I heard the term “number theory” was when I was a 13-year-old schoolboy. Our local newspaper carried an obituary about the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos and his life really fascinated me. I was curious to find out more about number theory, which the article said he worked on, so I picked up a book in my local Calcutta bookstore on elementary number theory (by Telang) and worked through it for the next two years. I was fascinated by the material which was full of beautiful proofs and it was so different from what we were learning in school.

Now modern number theory is very different from elementary number theory. But one of the things I like is how very basic questions in number theory, like resolving whether a simple equation has a solution in numbers, actually require you to use machinery from complex analysis and algebraic geometry and automorphic functions. One of the first things we learn as a child are the counting numbers, the integers … 1,2,3 …. but they have all sorts of fascinating structures that are hidden and in order to understand them, you need to really go deep into a lot of difficult areas of mathematics.

Your award recognised your great track record for bringing in funding. How do you learn about these opportunities?
In the School of Mathematical Sciences, we are lucky to have a great research support structure. The research manager, Elisa, is fantastic and she sends around opportunities to staff regularly. Apart from that, talking to colleagues and going through the websites of standard funders like EPSRC and the Leverhulme Trust is always useful.

What 3 pieces of advice would you give to someone applying for a grant?

  1. Keep applying! Grants are a bit of a lottery: success rates are low, and success depends on many factors, so keep trying and with each failure, use the reviewer comments to make your next application even better. In the last 5 years, I have applied for 10 grants, only 3 of which were successful.
  2. Get three people to read your proposal - an expert in your area, someone from a different area of mathematics, and a non-mathematician.
  3. Begin your proposal with a hook, i.e., something bold and big and intriguing.

The Faculty also celebrated the work you’ve done to change the grant culture in the School of Mathematical Sciences. How can we build upon this to ensure we continue to move in the right direction?
First of all, maintaining the existing grant application support structure and process is important. We should try to maintain School autonomy in this sphere as this has worked well.

Secondly, I think it is important to motivate people to apply for grants. This means ensuring that grant buyouts lead to commensurate relief from teaching and administration and other schemes like the near-miss scheme can also play a role in this. This also means that we ensure that grant-holders be able to spend the research funds for the intended purpose (whether it is undertaking research-related travel, hosting visitors, or recruiting research assistants) without being hampered by excessive bureaucracy and regulations; so that they are motivated to apply for more grants.

What, according to you, is the most important value that a higher education institution should uphold?
Academic Freedom. One of my core beliefs is that academics should be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or facing disciplinary action.

For more info on Professor Abhishek's research and publications, please visit his staff profile page



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