Dr Liam Bradwin Baker, lecturer and researcher in number theory at Stellenbosch University (SU) is also known for his involvement in mathematics competitions in South Africa and abroad. He says: ‘I decided in high school that I would be a mathematician, and two of the people who influenced me at the time were Phil Labuschagne and Prof John Webb from UCT.’ He adds: ‘What really helped me flourish was having a supportive community of maths-minded people, so I think that creating such communities is the best way to support young mathematicians!’

Dr Baker says that for him the ‘chief attraction of science is the ability to figure out how the world really works. Lots of people rarely think about why things are the way that they are, but for some reason reaching deeper understanding is so satisfying to me.’ Although scientific endeavour has general and long-term effects on the way we live our lives, he also muses about the fact that pure research does not necessarily lead directly to such results. ‘My research is related to something which is related to something which is related to something which has practical effects, but the practical uses are not immediately evident.’

He studied for his BSc (Maths, Applied Maths) and BSc (Hons) (Mathematics) at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He then received a MSc (Mathematics) cum laude and his PhD in Mathematics in 2020 from Stellenbosch University. His thesis was titled ‘Drinfeld modular forms of higher rank from a lattice-oriented point of view’ and his supervisor was Dr Dirk Basson.

Mathematics competitions
Dr Baker has been involved in numerous mathematics competitions. Among others he placed 4th and 3rd in the South African Mathematics Olympiad (SAMO) in 2008 and 2009. He represented South Africa at the 2008 Pan African Mathematical Olympiad (PAMO), and the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMOs) in 2008 and 2009. Thereafter he participated in the IMO in 2014 as a problem coordinator. From 2018 until 2023 he was the team leader for the South African team every year. He has also been involved in the Pan African Mathematics Olympiad since 2019. He also represented UCT at the 20th International Mathematics Competition for Students (IMC) held in Bulgaria in 2013 where he won a first prize. He subsequently participated in the IMC in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019 as team leader for the SU and UCT teams, and in 2021 as one of the team leaders for the combined South African team. He participated in the Simon Marais Mathematics Competition (SMMC) in 2021 and 2022 as a member of its Problem Committee and marking team.

One of the things Dr Baker stresses is the importance of collaboration across disciplines. ‘It is super important because we can accomplish more when we work together than when we try to do things alone! Even simply talking to someone else about a problem can spark ideas which lead to a solution, so collaboration is invaluable.’

He has turned his passion for the advancement of science and public engagement about mathematics into practice and public documents. Among others he received the S2A3 medal in 2015 from the Southern African Association for the Advancement of Science for the best MSc thesis at Stellenbosch University for that year and appeared on Cape Town TV and CCFM for public engagement regarding mathematics competitions.

To young people who are planning a career in the sciences, Dr Baker says: ‘You are capable of so much more than you or those around you can ever imagine! It will take hard work and sacrifice, but when you look back and see all that has been accomplished, you’ll be surprised!