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'Math is a lot of fun,' says Dean's Medalist Zahra Hussaini


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January 03, 2014

Meet Zahra Hussaini – a likeable, outgoing, intelligent young woman with a passion for abstract math, as well as physics, materials science, chemistry, computer science, logic problems, origami and anything else she "finds intrinsically interesting."

A recent graduate double-majoring in physics and mathematics, with a minor in materials science and engineering, Hussaini defended her Barrett Honors undergraduate thesis on developing a fundamental understanding of materials for sustainable energy applications.

And that's not all.

She has conducted research through a NASA Space Grant, and has won back-to-back championship titles in the annual CryptoRally code-breaking competition. Most recently, she was honored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with not one, but two Dean's Medals for most outstanding senior in physics and mathematics.

“She has a natural inquisitiveness and desire for learning and discovering, coupled with strong ability,” said Glenn Hurlbert, President’s Professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

“I have no doubt that Zahra is looking forward to a distinguished career in graduate school and beyond, and I see her emerging as a highly effective role model, especially for young girls and women in the physical science and pure mathematics," said ASU mathematics professor Matthias Kawski.

“Ms. Hussaini is a Barrett Honors student with an outstanding record in both mathematics and physics," added Al Boggess, director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. "Her undergraduate research is partially funded by NASA, and this is an unusual accomplishment by a student in the mathematical sciences.”

I sat down with the Arizona native (graduate of Peoria High School in Peoria) for a Q&A to learn more about her academic interests, her background and what her future holds. To read the entire interview, click here.

Why did you decide to double major in both math and physics?

I started out in pre-med and a few months later I ended up in materials science, and I really, really loved materials science – and I still do. But it wasn’t mathematical and "physics-y" enough. I was taking physics classes and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a physics major. I was a physics and materials engineering double major for a while. Then I decided the materials engineering just wasn’t mathematical enough. It wasn’t answering enough “why?” questions.

As I took more physics, I realized how much it depended on math. I took a couple of the intro upper-division math classes and they were really fun. Then I started to like math for its own sake because it’s really, really fun. So I decided I wanted to keep taking math classes. I like the way it makes you think about things. Until I took upper-division “proofy” math classes, I don’t think I took a class that made you think in that way ... and I really liked it.

You’re a native of Arizona, yes?

Yes. My parents are from Afghanistan, and they came here just six months before I was born. So I got to be born here. What’s kind of funny is because my parents spoke Farsi as their native language – that’s what’s spoken in Afghanistan – there was a time in my life where I spoke Farsi and not English, even though I was born here. In a sense, it’s my second language, but I never learned reading and writing in the other language, so I just think that’s funny.

What does your research entail?

I work with a professor in the materials science and engineering department, Peter Crozier, whose research group does electron microscopy. There’s a type of spectroscopy you can do in the electron microscope so you can see the atoms, and that gives you information about the structure. There are atoms here and they’re bonded in a cubic way or hexagonal pattern, but you don’t know what chemical element they are. There’s a type of spectroscopy you can do that gives you information about what chemical elements are present, and that also gives you information about what kind of bonding is present. For a lot of those materials it’s the bonding that then goes and determines the properties that makes them useful for these technologies. Like in solar cells, there’s something special about the material that makes it absorb light and turn into electricity, and that special property is determined by the bonding.

This spectroscopy gives you information about chemical elements and bonding, and I did simulations of that type of spectroscopy to try and understand how crystal defects – places where you don’t have a perfect crystal structure of atoms, they’re not perfectly ordered, there are flips and atoms missing and things like that – to understand how that affects bonding, and how the bonding affects the properties.

What kinds of things do you find fun?

If someone would pay me to just knit, I’d be really happy (laughter). 

Does knitting use a lot of physics and math skills?

I think there is math in it. You just don’t need to know it to be able to do it. Like origami. I actually watched a really cool documentary about the math of origami and people that, instead of treating it as an art, were like, ‘I want to make this,’ and figuring out how to fold paper to make that shape, and it was really cool stuff. 

Why do you think math is so much fun?

Each problem is like a little puzzle, and I enjoy figuring it out. Something that makes math different than most other subjects is that you have to prove that you're correct. This means I spend a lot of time thinking about each step of my solution and looking for special cases where it fails. Once I do reach a solution, I'm pretty confident that it's the right one. The process of thinking really deeply about a problem and feeling like I've mastered it is fun for me. Without my math background, my undergraduate research project in materials science would not really have moved forward. Math gives you a way of thinking about problems that's organized and beautiful. 

What message would you like to share with girls in high school who might be interested in math or science?

Your gender is irrelevant. If you love learning about something, and that something happens to be math or science, you shouldn't let gender stereotypes stop you from learning more. You might meet people who think it's weird that a woman is so interested in something so technical. You don't have to prove these people wrong, but don't let them change how you think of yourself and don't let them discourage you from learning about things that you find interesting. I've heard stories from women older than me about really hurtful things that have been said to them, but I think negative attitudes about women in math and science are dying out. In my experience, most people don't think twice about my gender when I tell them what I'm studying, and I haven't met a professor who thought a woman didn't belong in his or her class. 

Also, (and this advice isn't just for women, but any young person who might be interested in math) don't let stereotypes about math keep you from pursuing it. Up through high school, you learn the type of math that involves equations and solving for "x." Unless you're lucky, you probably haven't seen any real math before college. Real math isn't about formulas or following a series of steps to get the right answer, and it doesn't always involve numbers. Math is about solving puzzles and figuring things out for yourself, and there is a whole lot more room for creativity than there is in a high school algebra class. If you like solving puzzles and logic problems, then give math a chance. You might find you love it.

The School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The school is currently ranked 7th in the nation for Best Colleges for Math Majors by Payscale.com. The school is also ranked 21st in the world and is among the “world’s most influential in the field of mathematics” according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. To find out more, go to math.asu.edu.

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