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Spotlight on Sabarina Shafie

PhD student

Sabarina Shafie is in her final stages of a PhD within the School of Mathematics and Statistics. She reveals the interesting way she originally got into maths, gives us some pointers on travelling to her home country Malaysia, divulges her hobbies, and opens up about some of the challenging and rewarding aspects of postgraduate study...

Interview conducted by School Communications Officer, Susannah Waters


You are currently undertaking your PhD with us. Briefly describe your area of research, and what attracted you to this area.

I am currently in my final year as a PhD student under the supervision of Assoc. Prof. Thanh Tran. My thesis is about a posteriori error estimation of finite element methods for initial boundary value problems. In general, the study is aiming to produce a complete error analysis about the approximate solutions of nonlinear initial boundary value problems by using tools based on finite element methods.

I did a bachelor degree with a major in computational mathematics, and with a minor in education. I then did my master’s degree focusing on spline interpolation. I heard about finite element analysis during my master’s through talking to my colleagues and reading through the literature, and I started to develop an interest to challenge myself to studying this.

Early in 2012, I approached Assoc. Prof. Thanh Tran and I was lucky to discover that there is a group of experts of finite element analysis in Australia, particularly in UNSW.


When and how did you first become interested in mathematics, and what excites you most about it?

I first became interested in mathematics when I was 8-10 years old because of my mum. She had a small restaurant close to our house. Because it is a small restaurant, my mum just calculated everything by herself (sometimes she wrote it down on paper to do the calculations, but she didn't use a calculator or a cashier machine).

I played with the papers and read my mum's calculation. And I enjoyed it. Sometimes I acted like a teacher, with a red pen and checked my mum's calculation (of course they were always correct). Hahaha.

We did a lot of betting, for example my mum challenged me to do the calculations, if I got it right I would get an extra hour to play outside that day, otherwise I have to help with dishes cleaning. So I became quite good with calculations at school, all thanks to my mum. Hahaha =)

The next person of influence is my late mathematics teacher, Aminah Ahmad. I was so crazy about mathematics during my school years because of her. She encouraged me to become a mathematics teacher ever since I was 9 years old. Because of my interest in mathematics, I managed to get the award for best student for mathematics in almost every year during my school time, and I graduated in 1st class of my bachelor degree.

I felt like mathematics was simple and entertaining during my school years. 

During my bachelor and master’s degrees, I felt mathematics gives me excitement when I managed to solve the problems. I started to feel mathematics is tough during my PhD study. But it is doable, and required extra passion and concentration. Hahaha =)


What have you found the most challenging aspect of your studies so far?

The most challenging thing for me is the process of learning the finite element analysis. I had an option to focus on the spline interpolation for my PhD. But I was too eager to challenge myself and do something which I think it is interesting to learn rather than doing deeper exploration on something that I did for my master’s degree.

Doing a PhD also involves a lot of self-discovery and requires a high level of critical thinking. As I am not very experienced at this, it's quite challenging for me.


You are from Malaysia… What part of Malaysia are you from? What tips would you give to someone travelling to Malaysia? What culturally significant places should they visit?

Yes, I am Malaysian. My hometown is located in Perak, the fourth largest state of Malaysia.

For the tips, firstly take note that weather in Malaysia is hot and humid all throughout the year, so your summer clothes are totally fine. Secondly, Malaysia is a multiracial country, with Malays, Chinese and Indians forming the largest part of the population.

Due to this, the diversity of culture is wider as it's merged from these three races.

If you are cultural-oriented travellers, don't miss visiting Malacca state for 'baba nyonya heritage' and Penang island for 'mamak / Indian Muslims heritage'. Thirdly, the best time to visit Malaysia is during the festival and religious ceremonies, for example Aidilfitri celebration for Muslim, Chinese New Year for Chinese and Deepavalli for Indian. During these festivals and ceremonies, you will get a chance to feel the excitement of Malaysians celebrating.   

Fourthly, domestic flights to travel around the states in Malaysia are quite cheap, e.g. AirAsia and Firefly airlines. Or if you prefer to enjoy road-trips, you can choose to rent a car or use buses to travel between the states. And lastly, for the travellers that enjoy tasting new foods, don't forget to visit Kelantan state, the east part of Malaysia. This state is well-known for various traditional and unique foods.


Is there a difference between postgrad research in Malaysia and Australia?

In many ways, postgraduate research in Malaysia and Australia are very similar. Both require the students to be independent in doing research.

Some small differences maybe in Malaysia, the relationship between postgraduate students and their supervisors are quite formal and usually develop into parent-child type of relationship as we get close. While in Australia, the student-supervisor relationship feels more like a friend, regardless of the age gap.

Besides that, passing the oral examination (the viva) after the submission of the thesis is a main event for a postgrad in Malaysia. Students are more nervous about doing the oral examination compared to the thesis submission. While in Australia, thesis submission is the main event in the PhD journey. Because after thesis submission, we only need to wait to get feedback from the reviewers.


What would be your advice to future students at UNSW from Malaysia?

Try to grab the chance to learn from the experts as much as you can because UNSW, particularly the School of Mathematics and Statistics, offers opportunities to meet and network with many experts from all over the world. This network definitely will benefit you in the future.

There are many kinds of support systems available at UNSW, try to make use of them. For example, support schemes for students to present their work at conferences around the world, and also workshops under the GRS to help postgraduate students with their research and thesis.

It's normal to feel down a few times during study, and lonely since we're far away from our family. Don't keep yourself alone, be friends with other students, and share your problems with friends. Usually, every postgraduate student faces some difficulties, and sharing helps us feel that we are not alone =) All the best!

Does anyone in your family have a background in mathematics?

No one.


Outside of your studies, what are your main interests/hobbies?

Cooking. I started to enjoy cooking when I came to Sydney. This is my first time being this far from my family. There were many times that I missed the foods in Malaysia, but the foods are either too expensive or not available in Sydney. So, I had no choice but to learn to make it by myself. After almost 3 years, I now enjoy cooking immensely. It is also a way for me to release my stress.


Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?

As I just got married two months ago; I see myself as a mum to my kids and enjoying being an academic at my current workplace (I'm an academic trainee at Sultan Idris Education University, Perak, Malaysia). Almost half of the graduates from this university will graduate as mathematics teachers for schools. Therefore, I see myself as one of the educators responsible for teaching the future mathematics teachers of Malaysia.


Describe your overall PhD experience in three words!

Unpredictable - Challenging - Determination



November 2015