UKZN’s Professor Jacek Banasiak
(far left) with Marek Bodnar and Dr
Zuzanna Katarzyna Szymanska, both
of Warsaw University, and Dr Maciej
Grzeskowiak of Adam Mickiewicz

Mathematics Professor in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, Professor Jacek Banasiak, one of UKZN’s most respected and prolific researchers, has been appointed the leader of the University’s node of a new national Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Sciences being established by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

A consortium of the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Pretoria, UKZN and North-West University, made a submission to the NRF to establish the Centre following the recommendations of the International Review of Mathematical Sciences.

The UKZN node, which Banasiak oversees, models and analyses processes in natural sciences. The activities of the node will also cover symmetry analysis, mathematical physics, algebra and topology and applied statistics.

Banasiak’s work in this regard contributes to the aims of the Centre to support selected crucial disciplines of Mathematical Sciences in South Africa which face the threat of losing the critical mass needed for their survival. This support is achieved by awarding postdoctoral and student scholarships, supporting national and international staff mobility and organising workshops and seminars.

Being a leader of such an initiative, which is evidence of UKZN’s calibre in the field of Mathematics and contributes to the future of Mathematical Sciences in the country, is only one aspect of Banasiak’s success in his field.

It was not always so, however. Banasiak, who originates from Poland, says Mathematics was not his strong point during his earlier years.

‘In primary school and at the beginning of high school I was weak in Mathematics and far more interested in other scientific subjects like Geology and Chemistry – I failed miserably at School Maths Olympiads in Poland,’ said Banasiak. ‘My interest in Mathematics was sparked by a series of popular books by W.W. Sawyer, which I read once during a holiday and which showed how beautifully the world fits together when looked at through the lenses of mathematics.’

Banasiak has come a long way since he began developing a love for Mathematics. He earned a Master of Engineering degree from the Technical University of Lódz in Poland and his Doctor of Philosophy in Mathematics from the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom. He also received his Doctor of Science (habilitation) from the University of Warsaw in 1999 thanks to his research and holds the state title of Professor, conferred on him by the President of the Republic of Poland in 2007.

He is also an associate of the National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP) and African Institute of Mathematical Sciences and a member of the executive of the African Mathematical Union for which he acts as the Editor in Chief of the AFRIKA MATEMATIKA, the only Pan African journal aimed at promoting African mathematical research in the world and bringing the international mathematics to Africa.

Banasiak was the Vice-President of the South African Mathematical Society from 2001-2005 and the Head of the School of Mathematical Sciences at UKZN between 2005 and 2007.

In 2013, Banasiak became one of few academics honoured with a UKZN Fellowship, which recognises research excellence and distinguished academic achievement.

Banasiak arrived at the then University of Natal’s Durban campus in 1992 as a Postdoctoral Fellow after lecturing at the Technical University of Lódz. He was invited to UKZN by Professor Janusz Mika, who was then the Head of Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics.

‘Mika was possibly the person who had the greatest influence on my research; he brought me to Durban and introduced me to the kinetic theory and, in general, to applied mathematics,’ said Banasiak.

He became a Senior Professor at UKZN in 2008 and Research Professor in 2011.

Banasiak has received numerous awards recognising his excellent research – he was awarded the 2012 South African Mathematical Society Award for Research Distinction, which is the highest recognition for Mathematical achievement in South Africa and he has held a B1 rating from the NRF since 2006, which was again renewed in 2013.

His honorary appointment in Poland also makes him eligible for Polish awards, and in 2013 the President of the Republic of Poland awarded Banasiak the Silver Cross of Merit. He was also recently awarded 1st Prize in the 2014 National Competition for the Best Paper in Applied Mathematics, organized by the Centre for Application of Mathematics in Gdansk, Poland.

Two of his monographs were published in 2013 and 2014 by the Cambridge University Press and Birkhäuser/Springer respectively; both are publishing houses regarded as the top international scientific publishers and therefore have very strict reviewing policies.

Most of the acclaimed papers published by Banasiak are based on the theory built and developed in an older monograph, Perturbations of Positive Semigroups with Applications, Springer Verlag, 2006, written jointly with L. Arlotti, for which he received the 2009 University of KwaZulu-Natal Book Prize in Health, Science and Engineering for 2007.

Banasiak’s main contribution to his field was, in his opinion, the development of the theory of the so-called substochastic semigroups which provided a comprehensive analytical explanation of phenomena of non-uniqueness and phase transitions in kinetic type equations and also paved a way to the theory classical solutions to fragmentation-coagulation equations.

‘This theory took several years to mature and also involved many dry years full of blind alleys and unexpected turns, said Banasiak. ‘But apart from pure research,   I am also very proud of my involvement in advancing mathematical research in Africa and other countries through supervision of students, organisation of research schools, and workshops and conferences and contributing to national and international scientific bodies. I consider this to be an integral part of the academic profile of any scientist.’

Banasiak said his time at UKZN had been characterised by the camaraderie he has experienced in the School. ‘To large extent we are a group of friends who enjoy working and spending time together,’ he explained.

He also feels grateful for the level of trust that used to exist between the management and academics which gave him the space to develop his academic research life to the best of his abilities and at his own pace.

‘Without this space I would have not been able to develop such an extensive network of excellent collaborators, and to develop new theories which have been coming to fruition only several years after they have been conceived,’ said Banasiak.

Banasiak hopes to have the space to build deeper and more extensive theories. ‘True research is a risky and unpredictable business and requires allowance for making mistakes, dry years or even simply years when one needs to incubate new ideas. In fact, Wernher von Braun said that “Basic research is what I am doing when I do not know what I am doing,” a statement which is true for me,’ he explained.

‘My family tolerates my long hours at work and extensive travel valiantly and I am sincerely grateful for their understanding.

‘I also hope to see my results taken on and developed beyond their original ambit.’