Louise Ryan's humanitarian spirit resides in the mind of a mathematician. After recognizing her affinity for solving real-world problems, Ryan carved a path as a biostatistician assessing environmental risks to human health. As she returns to her native Australia to head the maths and information-sciences division for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, she plans to create opportunities for like-minded students. See CV

As an undergraduate, Ryan began actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. She lost interest in the financial focus at the same time that she became captivated by statistics. “The real world is chaotic, and I loved coming up with simple formulae able to reveal the complexity of randomness,” she says.

Ryan's undergraduate adviser, Don McNeil, encouraged her to pursue a PhD in the United States. At Harvard University, Ryan developed diagnostic techniques to determine which statistical models are most appropriate for specific data sets, but this focus was too theoretical to sustain her interest. Through McNeil, she met members of Harvard's biostatistics department and began a postdoc with Stephen Lagakos, who was working to quantify cancer risks of red dye 40, a food-colouring agent. At the same time, she worked on statistical underpinnings of clinical-trial design at the nearby Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Ryan's reputation for conducting quality environmental risk-assessments got her a seat on the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel on arsenic in drinking water, where she used her statistical expertise to quantify the effects associated with models' uncertainty. She used similar techniques to help a NAS panel advise on methylmercury. “Louise cares deeply about making the world a better place,” says Lagakos.

While at Harvard, Ryan headed student programmes, including one that gave minority students opportunities in biostatistics. After directing an environmental statistics programme, she went on to chair the biostatistics department. She remains an adjunct professor at Harvard.

Her main goal now is stimulating top-notch statistics research opportunities in Australia. Already, she has started a graduate fellows programme to attract talented undergraduates who want work experience on the way to a PhD — a missing link in Australia's maths career pipeline. “I want to make this division a magnet for the best talent,” Ryan says.