Abi Srikumar has hit the ground running with a PhD in Applied Mathematics after recently wrapping up her Honours year with us. During her undergraduate studies, she won a 2020 University Medal and a slew of other awards for her outstanding academic performance. In this interview she compares her Honours and Postgraduate research experiences, reveals a relative's massive influence on her mathematical journey, discusses her strategies for online study and shares highlights of her time at uni... and more!
You recently completed a double degree in Advanced Mathematics and Actuarial Studies. What drew you to this combination of disciplines?
To be completely honest coming out of high school I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do. I have always had an interest in science and maths (or anything quantitative really) so when my family and friends suggested actuarial might be interesting I though I’d give it a shot. I decided to pair it with maths as I had a lot of fun studying maths in high school, even though I wasn’t awfully sure what it would involve at university. I guess I was part of the fortunate few who picked their degrees on a whim but ended up really enjoying what they were studying!
Last year you completed an Honours year in Applied Mathematics, and this year commenced a PhD program with us. I know it’s early days into your PhD, but how different have the two experiences of research been so far?
I guess the main difference is the reduced pressure from not having to do coursework while writing a thesis all in the span of a single year. However, the two experiences have been surprisingly similar in that I needed to learn extra material outside of what I initially thought I was focusing on, in addition to my teaching load as well. Now that I think about it - last year seems to be a pretty good test run of what this year has been like, even right down to the lockdown aspect.
To date, what has been your highlight of being at university?
It’s hard to say… I think all the new things I have learnt and the people I have met along the way have been the best part of uni. Even the tough times like slogging through all-nighters with friends as we scram to get exam prep done is something I look back at with nostalgia. The occasional pub crawl was also pretty fun.
Do you have any advice for staying focused, healthy, and happy during long stretches of online learning? Has anything in particular worked for you?
Finding a way to break up the monotony of staying home all day is probably the best way of maintaining one’s sanity throughout extended periods of not going out. Usually taking a walk around lunch to help break the day up from being one long stretch of staring at a computer screen makes the days more tolerable and productive - it also prevents the inevitable food coma I get into after lunch :P
I also find spending some time in the sun gardening with my hens or playing 'baseball' with my sister using a bat crudely fashioned from an old tree branch provides a great reprieve from idly sitting around the house. And of course - one can never go wrong with a stand-up special or TV show binge in the evening!
Back in June, you joined a team of school staff and students working on our annual Girls Do the Maths event on campus. What was that experience like?
It was one of best experiences I have had in my time at uni. It was fantastic seeing so many ardent young women considering studying mathematics and it makes me proud to say that I was involved with a great initiative to cultivate this interest. The planning of the day by the organisers was impeccable and being able to sit and talk with some of these girls to hear about their experiences with fun activities throughout the day was great - it also gave me the opportunity meet some of the awesome people from around the school and catch up with some old friends!
I truly do believe in the importance of such events - I always think about how fortunate I am to have ended up studying maths even though it really was just a random choice I had made at the end of high school. Events like these will certainly give students, who like myself at the time may have not known what opportunities there are in studying maths, a little direction and encouragement towards following maths beyond high school.
What first sparked your interest in mathematics and when was that?
My grandmother had a great influence on my interest in maths. She was quite a brilliant lady and had been a mathematics and chemistry teacher back in the day. Upon hearing what I was currently studying at school, she would immediately start teaching me something new and without realising it I would have spent hours listening to some fascinating insight she had (although much of it would go over my head). It is likely a large part of the reason I love teaching so much – if I could do for one person what she had done for me it would bring me great joy. I think about her every now and then and wonder about all the conversations we could have now and the things I might be able to teach her about.
Could you please briefly describe your thesis topic, 'Theory and application of Quasi-Monte Carlo Methods'?
Quasi-Monte Carlo (QMC) methods are numerical methods that have been specifically designed to evaluate high-dimensional integrals in an efficient and timely manner with fast convergence properties. The aim of my PhD is to explore different scenarios in which QMC can be used and develop new theory surrounding its use in these applications.
What do you enjoy most about research?
Strangely enough the thing that annoys me about research is probably what I love about it the most - and that’s being continually confronted with how little I know and how much there is to learn. Every time I start feeling a little comfortable about what I am looking into, a new hurdle is always presented and as frustrating as that can be sometimes, it is always an opportunity to learn something new and exciting. Being able to explore and read about new things outside of my direct topic such as PDEs has also been a highlight, and being able see how all the different pieces of a seemingly disconnected puzzle come together to form a solution is very cool.
What is it like being under the PhD supervision of our Professors Frances Kuo and Ian Sloan?
To be perfectly candid as amazing as it is working under the guidance of Frances and Ian, I do have to admit it is also rather daunting due to their experience and reputation! I am also being co-supervised by Dr Alec Gilbert who has also been a great help with finding my footing with research. All of them are so knowledgeable and meticulous that they always pick up on improvements, fixes and observations I miss – I learn something new at every meeting and in every email. Their connections internationally have also allowed me to work with people from abroad - something I never thought I would do going into Honours.
I am looking very forward to working with them and learning from them over the next few years!
Have you mapped out any plans for when you finish your PhD?
I am not sure yet what I am planning to do – I’m sure whatever it is will find its way to me :D