12 December 1997

Blind University of Queensland graduate Dr Andrew Hart says he had more hassle with low-hanging, water-laden trees on campus than he did with postgraduate mathematics.

Dr Hart, 25, who has been blind since age eight, will graduate PhD at a ceremony in Mayne Hall on December 15 at 6.15pm.

One of the University's highest-achieving students, Dr Hart's enthusiasm for mathematics developed in high school.

'Mathematics is exciting. Like anything, some aspects can be dry, but maths covers an immense area and diverse applications. Many of the technological advances we have witnessed in recent times were supported by mathematical tools,' he said.

He completed his studies with the help of a range of specialised computer equipment and assistance from narrators who read lecture notes and textbooks onto audiotape for him.

In 1993, he helped set up a specialised laboratory at the University, the Optical Character Recognition Workstation and Braille Production Facility, funded by the Alumni Association. It offers talking computers, a scanner and Braille printer to give more independence to up to 40 students with print impairment.

Dr Hart said he had also been greatly assisted by the University's Disability Program, part of Student Support Services: 'Amongst other things, they assisted by paying for the specialised narrators whom I employed to read mathematical material onto audiotape.

'The Disability Program develops policies and liaises between students and lecturers on ways to tackle the problems they experience,' Dr Hart said.

'The Program also runs a voluntary tape-reading service involving more than 120 volunteers who read books and lecture notes onto audiotape.'

He said the main challenge to studying as a blind student was the time involved in accessing information.

'Whereas a sighted student can go to the library, read a book for three hours and put it back, I would have to borrow the book, organise for it to be read onto tape and then listen to the tape. This all took twice as long and at the end of it, the book may not have contained the desired information anyway,' he said.

Supervised by Dr Philip Pollett, Reader in Mathematics, Dr Hart's thesis further develops a modelling tool for deducing characteristics of biological or epidemiological populations, in particular their long-term behaviour before extinction.

Using data such as present birth and death rates, the modelling tool can be used to predict the expected future size of animal populations before extinction or the spread of particular diseases such as AIDS or malaria among humans.

'The modelling technique uses observed data to derive a qualitative description of future population behaviour,' Dr Hart said.

Entitled Quasistationary Distributions for Continuous -Time Markov Chains, the thesis is based on the quasistationary nature of populations, that is the tendency for populations to quickly reach an equilibrium level and fluctuate about this level for a long time before dying out.

Dr Hart's academic success includes winning a University Medal in 1994 after gaining a grade point average (GPA) of 6.95 out of a possible seven during his undergraduate and honours degree.

One of three finalists in the science and technology category of the 1993 Queensland Young Achiever of the Year Awards, he also received a string of prizes and scholarships.

These included the AMP Prize in Statistics in 1990, the James Cecil Stevenson Memorial Prize and Maude Walker Prize in 1991 and the Harriet Marks Bursary and Ethel Raybould Prize in Mathematics in 1993.

From 1994, Dr Hart was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) at the high priority rate, the first such award at this rate to a PhD candidate in the Mathematics Department. Dr Hart is continuing to work as a Mathematics Department researcher.

His graduation will be attended by his parents Lesley and Douglas, sister Ellissa, brother Malcolm and grandmother Shirley Radloff from Rockhampton.

For more information, contact Dr Hart (telephone 07 3365 8506).