Dr Dr Barbara Susanna (Susan) passed away on 3 September, twenty five years after retiring to Bundaberg.
Dr Dr Barbara Susanna (Susan) passed away on 3 September, twenty five years after retiring to Bundaberg. Contributed

TRIBUTE: Susan's mathematical genius before her time

MOST residents would be unaware that a mathematical giant had been living in our midst since 1994.

Dr Barbara Susanna (Susan) Niven passed away on September 3, 25 years after retiring to Bundaberg to take advantage of our moderate climate, excellent public library, astronomical society and pubs, where she took her lunch every day when able.

Susan's achievements in the academic world, at a time when women faced very real "glass ceilings", are inspiring and herculean.

It was always her mission to inspire young women pursuing careers in mathematics and science.

Susan was born in Natal, South Africa, in 1927, her mother died when she was three and her step-mother passed away in Susan's thirteenth year.

A tough start to life was a catalyst for the self-reliance Susan showed throughout her entire life.

After completing high school she ignored her headmaster father's career advice, to become a domestic science teacher.

Susan took matters into her own hands by enrolling, successfully, in a scholarship examination which enabled her to complete a Bachelor of Science degree, from the University of South Africa in 1946.

She struggled for meaningful challenges in her early appointments but her abilities as a statistician were eventually noticed, resulting in an invitation to become a lecturer at the Witwatersrand University.

This appointment marked Susan's entry to academia and her career-long pursuits in the mathematical realm.
She also completed a Master of Science degree and rubbed shoulders with a young Nelson Mandela while at Witwatersrand.

Susan and her colleagues were bitterly opposed to and actively working against the brutally-enforced apartheid regime.

In 1960 she hastily fled South Africa for the UK, seeking knowledge of her mother's family and a suitable position.
In her words...the weather was awful and so were the positions.

In 1963 she moved to the University of Western Australia to take up a lecturing position and investigate her increasing interest in the application of mathematical understandings to populations in nature.

Susan purchased a used 1964 VW Beetle in Perth.

She drove it across the Nullarbor desert 15 times in the ensuing years, usually alone and always camping out along the remote route.

In 1966 an opportunity to work with the pre-eminent Australian ecologist, Dr HG Andrewartha, in Adelaide was too tempting to ignore.

She was appointed Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide - teaching undergraduate students, completing her Doctor of Philosophy qualification, establishing the South Australian Statistical Society and establishing the university's Biometry division while at the University of Adelaide.

Throughout her entire career Susan travelled extensively, to deliver academic papers in her various fields of study and collaborate with colleagues across the globe.

In 1979 Susan moved to Brisbane to concentrate on her primary research interest of explaining changes in natural populations using mathematical reasoning.

She worked at Griffith University until 1993, adding a Doctor of Science to her impressive list of academic qualifications

Susan's was a life dedicated to scholarship.

She never married and held strong views on how young women of science should conduct their lives, to ensure that domestic roles did not jeopardise their academic pursuits.

She was fiercely independent, no mean feat in those early days when the opposite was the accepted norm for most women in western society.

Susan was a pioneer in championing women's rights, an academic of considerable note and a lifelong mathematician.

She strove to inspire young women and used her considerable talents and achievements to do so.

Vale Susan, your independent life and achievements inspired many.



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