A ribbeting story: how a frog-loving maths-hater became a mathematician

Dr Xia Hua, who recently won a prestigious Eureka Prize for her mathematics research, used to hate maths. What she really loved was frogs. Which is lucky, because it’s the frogs that helped to get her here.

“As a child, I was passionate about them,” Dr Hua says. “My dream was to go to Madagascar to collect a glass frog. Their skin is perfectly transparent so you can see how everything moves inside them. It’s really amazing!” (As you can tell, she still loves frogs.)

Dr Hua remembers when she first read about the glass frog, and how they’re found not only in Madagascar but also in Costa Rica.

“I said, ‘Whoah!’ Because how can the same trait evolve in a completely different family in two isolated areas on opposite sides of the world? This is where my interest started in how evolutionary processes can give you the same result in totally different lineages of biology.”

She took that interest with her all the way through to her PhD in biology, developing a proposal which would allow her to get into the field to pursue both research and frogs. But she soon discovered there was something standing between her and her dream: maths.

“I found out that without maths, I couldn’t solve the biology problems I wanted to solve for my thesis.”

At high school, Dr Hua says she hated maths: “I didn’t know why I needed to learn it, and it was so abstract to me.” Now however, she could see the “actual reality of mathematics” as an “essential ingredient” in understanding research questions.

“Once I knew it was useful, I got really passionate about mathematics, taking courses and teaching myself,” she says.

Now Dr Hua is a mathematical biologist at the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute, specialising in evolutionary theory. She pursues her own research but also frequently brings the essential ingredient of maths to other scientists’ research questions.

It was her work on one such question which won Dr Hua the Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Research, alongside her collaborators: an Indigenous community leader, a linguist, and a biologist. Together, they are researching how the Indigenous language Gurindji is changing over generations, and looking at how outside influences, such as English-based schooling, might threaten its ongoing usage. 

For this research, Dr Hua took mathematical methods used to study biological evolution and adapted them to study language evolution.

“Because I’m interested in how things evolve, I don’t really care whether it’s biology or language or something else,” she says. One of her current research projects is looking at chemical evolution to understand how the galaxy was formed; another is investigating the genetic basis of speciation, especially in Australian lizards.

“As long as it’s an evolving system, and I’m interested in the mechanism under the evolution itself, I will be interested in collaborating on those studies.”

Dr Hua says she has been passionate about all her research projects, even those requiring her to “study up” on areas outside of her expertise. The Indigenous language project, in particular, “has had a positive influence on our society,” she says. And, maybe aside from frogs, this is her real passion.

“Meeting other people and thinking about these interesting questions I’ve never thought about before, it brings me so much more insight into my own research. It makes me happier than sitting in my office, solving problems by myself.”

“Maybe I’m not a classical mathematician in that way,” she says. “But I am a good example of how mathematics can be fascinating to anyone once you see how useful it is.”

No matter your research interests, if you’re fascinated by mathematics, hop on to the ANU Bachelor of Mathematical Sciences, an elite, research-focused program at Australia’s number one university.