Dr Teh Su Yean: Using Mathematics to address an environmental problem

Dr Teh Su Yean, an associate professor at the School Of Mathematical Sciences in Universiti Sains Malaysia was worried about presenting her proposal to the 2017 L’Oreal-Unesco Awards: National Fellowship.

“My research is quite technical and uses a lot of very specific terms. It also involves a lot of elements so at first my proposal felt convoluted. I showed it to many people and kept changing things to make it better. I doubted myself a lot,” said Teh in an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

She was very surprised when she finally got the e-mail from L’Oreal, informing her that she was one of the three recipients of the fellowship.

“It was surprising but it felt really good. Before the e-mail I told myself that it was OK if I failed because one of last year’s recipients, Dr Nethia Mohana Kumaran, applied three times so it’s not the end of the world if my proposal was rejected. I could always try again next year,” Teh, 36, added.

Her work focuses on using STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to study the impacts of climate change.

What is your research about?

I want to build a mathematical model to simulate the response of ground water and vegetation to sea level rise.

The model would look at how ground water moves underground, and the impact of rising sea levels on coastal resources, specifically on coastal ground water and vegetation.

Basically, a rising sea level means that sea water may intrude into fresh ground water, causing big problems as that water is no longer usable. There will also be a shift in vegetation. For example, if you have padi fields anywhere near coastal areas and you lose fresh ground water to sea water, then your crop will be affected.

Why did you decide to do this research and topic?

Climate change is only going to happen maybe 100 years from now, so who cares, right? But to me, it is a very important issue that should be highlighted today. People should be aware of all the threats that climate change brings.

I’m pretty sure I will not be the one who has to cope with these problems firsthand, as I will not be alive in 100 years’ time! But our children and grandchildren will be around so we have to be prepared for it regardless. We need to know what’s coming and we have to think about what to do to mitigate it to make the impact less.

Dr Teh Su Yean wants to build a mathematical model to simulate the response of ground water and vegetation to sea level rise. Photo: L'Oreal Malaysia

What would be the biggest challenge in getting this research done?

It is always challenging to make people see just how important the (climate change) issue is. But a bigger challenge for me is in bringing the right people to work together on this project and to understand it.

I am trying to bring experts in the STEM field together for this but people from different fields speak different languages so it’s kind of hard.

Why did you choose to study Mathematics?

I think Mathematics is interesting. I like the challenge of solving problems. It comes naturally to me. I also like that satisfying feeling you get when you solve a difficult Maths problem!

For my BSc, I did a Pure Mathematics course which was very theoretical and all about memorising formulas and things. But later on I realised that you can use Mathematics to solve so many problems.

This is what I want to show young people, especially girls. There are so many things you can do with a knowledge in STEM. You can address a real-life problem using STEM.

What does your family think of your work?

My parents are not highly educated but they worked very hard to get me and my brothers a good education. They always encouraged us to study hard. They were at first a little sceptical when I told them that I wanted to get into the science field as they were worried that it might be too difficult for me.

Maths and Science are hard subjects but so is Art, nothing is easy! But I believe if you put enough hard work into your studies – whatever the subject may be – it will start to get easy and you will get the results that you want.

Today, I am happy that all my hard work has allowed me to at least try and make the world better, and to provide my parents with a good life after retirement.

L’Oreal-Unesco Awards: National Fellowship

The fellowship is open to all Malaysian women researchers and scientists who are under the age of 40 years old. Applicants must either be PhD holders or are currently pursuing research studies in any scientific field.

Each recipient will receive a RM30,000 grant to help pursue their research.

Two jury panels were set up to comb through all the applications. The preliminary panelists for 2017 comprised eight scientists, all of whom are former grant recipients.

The main jury panel for this year was headed by Malaysian astrophysicist Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman, who is also the director of the International Council Of Science Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Other panelists are Associate Prof Dr Ramzah Dambul, the deputy secretary general, Ministry Of Science, Technology & Innovation (Science Division); Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, dean of the faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya; and Prof Dr Norzulaani Khalid, director of UM Cares, Universiti Malaya.

Application to the programme usually opens in March every year. You can follow the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science Facebook page or the L’Oreal Malaysia website for updates.


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