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Meet ICTP's Diploma Graduates

Samreena Samreena: In Pursuit of Pure Math

06/10/2017 - Trieste

ICTP’s intense Postgraduate Diploma Programme thoroughly prepares students for PhD studies anywhere in the world. The programme is hard enough as it is, but even more difficult when visa issues delay your arrival to class by a month. That's what happened to Mathematics Diploma student Samreena Samreena when she started at ICTP in fall of 2016.

Samreena2"I was not sure I would finish this diploma because all of the courses were really challenging," Samreena says. She missed six or seven lectures of each course because of her delayed visa, which made it even harder. "But everyone at ICTP really supported me and were really helpful. They encouraged me to try."

And try and succeed she did: she has been admitted to the ICTP-SISSA PhD programme and will start in October 2017, after a months' break at home. "I've been away from my family for five years for my education." Samreena is from Bannu, Pakistan, a city roughly 300 kilometers from Islamabad, where she earned her bachelor's degree at University of Science and Technology Bannu (UST Bannu) in 2012 before moving to Islamabad for her MSc and M.Phil in Algebra at Quaid-I-Azam University.

Now, she studies algebraic geometry, a subject she first encountered at ICTP. "I took the class here and I really liked it. It's not a usual subject in my country." Her work focuses on how curves intersect each other, with a thesis entitled Complex Algebraic Curves, drawing on her background in algebra as well. She'll expand on this work for her PhD, maintaining collaboration with her Diploma thesis advisor, ICTP mathematician Lothar Göttsche.

Not so long ago, this educational path would have been closed to Samreena. "In the area where I live, female education is not common, there is not a lot of support for it," she explains. "My family was supportive, but when I began my higher education my mother told me, don't tell anyone." Samreena's older sister had faced significant community pressure, and had married and stopped her education after her bachelor's degree. "I began to learn mathematics from the male teachers, who were teaching in the boys' colleges, but it was really secret, the top secret of my family that you should not tell anyone. People don't consider this [female education] a good thing."

Pakistan, a country of over two hundred million people, has a mixed record in supporting research and scientists, according to the UNESCO Science Report of 2015. Research and development investment from the government decreased by nearly a half between 2007 and 2013, but there are also plans to raise investment in research to 1% of GDP by 2018. Drives to ensure primary education have eaten into resources for higher education, which is also hampered by irregular electricity and poor internet connectivity. But there is plenty of interest in tertiary education from young Pakistanis, however they get it; 18% of all Pakistanis pursuing higher education have moved abroad to do so.

Samreena says the attitudes are slowly changing. While her older sister faced intense pressure to stop studying, her younger sister is studying to be a software engineer. "The life women lead where I am from would be very strange for some outsiders, the women just stay at home and they don't work. But now they are starting to go to school and colleges, but the country is still very different from here." On leaving her country and coming to ICTP, Samreena was initially afraid of how people would react to how she dressed, but "no one has treated me differently here," she says.

"When I heard about ICTP, I think that was the nicest thing that happened in my life. I've learned many things here, not just through studies. Before, I was kind of depressed about mathematics because I thought, I cannot study, I cannot get a PhD, but here I found I can." Both a former Diploma student from Pakistan and one of Samreena's professors encouraged her to apply, even though the professor was afraid that Samreena's family would not allow her to go. "Because he knows the culture there, but I told him no, I will try my best." 

ICTP is glad she has. "I love pure mathematics," Samreena says. "A lot of people say that applied mathematics is more practical, but I love how doing pure mathematics feels."


----- Kelsey Calhoun