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ACEMS Annual Retreat goes virtual in 2020

Like almost everything in 2020, COVID-19 forced ACEMS to reconfigure its annual retreat. In the end, the retreat was held in a hybrid format with ACEMS members at the UoA, UTS and QUT nodes able to get together under COVID-safe conditions at their respective universities or nearby facilities, and the rest of the nodes and members joining individually via Zoom. This drove the decision to hold the main Retreat over three half-days rather than full days to avoid Zoom fatigue, and it ran from Wednesday 4 November to Friday 6 November.

In 2019, it was noted that more partners and children attended the retreat than ever before. The virtual format in 2020 presented all members with the opportunity to participate. One member commented that “there are days I attended sessions that I wouldn’t have been able to attend if it were all in person and offsite”. Also, with the working from home arrangements in 2020, there were undoubtedly many partners and children present!

Sybille McKeown from the Australian Bureau of Statistics

The 2020 retreat began with a focus on industry. Sybille McKeown from the Australian Bureau of Statistics gave the keynote on “What’s at the core of an ACEMS legacy? – an industry partner’s perspective”. She reflected on the ABS and ACEMS partnership journey over the life of the Centre and why it has been so successful. She thought the definition of legacy as “making a contribution to future generations” was very relevant to ACEMS. The demand for the skills of the Centre in mathematical sciences has never been greater in the public sector, and the opportunities are growing and there is an abundance of exciting research problems on the horizon. It is, in fact, the quality of our relationships that will lie at the core of an ACEMS legacy.

The industry session also featured talks from representatives of our Partner Organisations, Partner Investigator Juan Ortiz (Australian Institute of Marine Science), Kerrin Bleicher and Cindy Peng (Sax Institute), Cheng Soon Song (CSIRO) and representatives of our Industry Affiliate Members including Claire Clarke (Australian Bureau of Statistics), Simon Grainger (Bureau of Meteorology) and Chandan Kumar (Queensland Government Department of Agriculture and Fisheries).

ACEMS Media and Communications Officer Tim Macuga launched Season four of the ACEMS podcast, The Random Sample, with an entertaining trailer that highlighted some of the podcasts. Everyone was invited to ‘nerd out’ as there’s no better time to learn about maths and stats.

Tim Macuga launching the fourth season of The Random Sample podcast

And following the launch, there was a Happy Hour where members that were not able to meet in person, joined break out rooms to reflect on the first day and have a social catch up.

The second day commenced with a keynote from Iain Johnstone from the Department of Statistics at Stanford University and a member of the ACEMS Scientific Advisory Committee. His talk, titled “Expectation Propagation in Mixed Models: A Legacy of Peter Hall”, presented ideas that began with discussions between Iain and ACEMS’ inaugural Director Peter Hall and were further developed in collaboration with ACEMS’ CI Matt Wand and Iain’s local colleague Song Mei. The talk demonstrated how fantastic theoretical work can come out of external motivation. According to one of the ACEMS members, Iain “gave arguably the best research plenary that we have seen at any ACEMS Retreat”.

Gunilla Burrowes (Gender Matters)

What followed was an engaging Equity and Diversity panel discussion on the Career impacts of COVID-19 on researchers. Rachael Quill chaired the session with panellists Associate Investigator Adrian Barnett (QUT and Statistical Society of Australia), Jessica Purcell (Monash University and WIMSIG) and Gunilla Burrowes (Gender Matters). Then ACEMS Director Peter Taylor led a Q&A session on how ACEMS can support its members and the pathways out of COVID. For more details, visit the Equity and Diversity Program page.

The ACEMS annual retreat’s primary intent is to bring members together to hear more about the research that’s going on at the Centre and encourage discussion and collaboration, and this year was no exception. Many of the talks highlighted research that was supported by the internal funding schemes available to members.

The International Mobility Programme (IMP) helps students and ECRs establish international collaborations by supporting travel. PhD student Raiha Browning (QUT) talked about her trip to the University of Oxford. PhD student Alexander Browning (QUT) shared his experience from his trip to the University of Oxford and meetings with other potential collaborators in the UK. Finally, Research Fellow Sarat Moka (UQ) discussed his trip The University of Ulm, Germany.

Raiha Browning presenting on her IMP visit.

Alex Browning presenting on his IMP visit

Alex Browning presenting at QUT

KD Dang presenting at UTS

Mel Humphries presenting in Adelaide

Associate Investigators Matias Quiroz (UTS) and Chris Drovandi (QUT) talked about how the ACEMS Research Support Scheme (RSS) funding helped facilitate cross-node collaboration and fund research assistants and travel to support their research and led to several publications. Associate Investigator Di Cook (Monash) discussed how the ACEMS Industry Collaboration Support Scheme (ICSS) helped progress her bushfire research and that of Honours and Masters students in collaboration with Partner Organisation AT&T. Associate Investigator Paul Wu (QUT) talked about how the ICSS has supported a new relationship with Swimming Australia Limited and the Queensland Academy of Sport on a project with a team of researchers and students across ACEMS.

Chris Drovandi at QUT presenting on his RSS project

Finally, despite not being able to attend the retreat dinner to network and celebrate the many successes of the Centre and its members, Peter Taylor took the time to highlight some of these achievements via the ACEMS recognition awards presented virtually to the recipients (with certificates mailed out after the retreat).

Being able to come together in person is always preferable. Still, the virtual retreat was the best opportunity available for ACEMS members to learn and share research and interact for the year. It left participants looking forward to the final celebration retreat in 2021 that we hope can be held in person.

There were 184* retreat registrants:

Industry partners

Research Fellows


Chief Investigators

Associate Investigators

Board members

Professional Staff


*Between 120-135 individuals attended (either virtually or in person) on each of the three days.

Photo gallery

A selection of retreat attendees via zoom

Members gathering in person at QUT

Attendees at QUT

AI Stephen Woodcock chairing a session in person at UTS

Members at the UoA gathering at the National Wine Centre of Australia

A selection of retreat attendees via zoom

Attendees at QUT

Attendees at QUT

Members at the UoA gathering at the National Wine Centre of Australia

Members at the UoA gathering at the National Wine Centre of Australia