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Meet ICTP's Diploma Graduates

Alaa Elshorbagy: A passion for mathematics

ICTP Postgraduate Diploma student Alaa Elshorbagy with Mathematics postdoctoral fellow Tarig Abdelgadir
ICTP Postgraduate Diploma student Alaa Elshorbagy with Mathematics postdoctoral fellow Tarig Abdelgadir

18/08/2015 - Trieste

19 March 2015. In ICTP's dimly lit Budinich Lecture Hall, an audience of students, parents and scientists have gathered to witness a re-enactment of the life of ancient Egypt's most famous female mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia. A joint production between ICTP and a local school, the performance highlights Hypatia's achievements and also her tragic death, as her beliefs and teachings ultimately trap her in a crossfire of politics and religion.

The cast includes several ICTP scientists who take to the stage to share their thoughts on science and freedom of thought, and religion and gender. Their personal, heart-felt testimonies add a poignant dose of reality to the performance, none more so than that of ICTP Postgraduate Diploma student Alaa Elshorbagy, a young mathematician from Hypatia's hometown of Alexandria, Egypt.

"Hypatia," Alaa tells the audience, "represents every woman standing between [politics and religion]. She gave a powerful example of how wrong those groups are. She was a mathematician, a philosopher and a political advisor, never letting anyone control her thoughts or restrict her freedom. And in mathematics she may have felt this freedom, a place where only the voice of reason rules and nothing else is above it." Her words speak not only to the ongoing plight of women but also to the current situation in her home country, which has been plagued by violence since the Arab Spring conflicts began in 2011.

In person, as on stage, Alaa projects a confident, keen intellect.  Conservatively dressed in the hijab commonly worn by Egyptian women, she talks frankly about how her passion for mathematics led her to ICTP, despite a tendency to take the path of least resistance. "I don't like to work hard at something I am not passionate about," she explains, adding, "I am more following my heart; I do mathematics for fun."

It is logical, then, that mathematics interested her from an early age ("It was the easiest course for me!"). Alaa's childhood was divided between Egypt and Saudi Arabia because of her father’s work as a medical doctor. While in Saudi Arabia she was home-schooled, but by age 10 she had surpassed her mother's knowledge of mathematics and so taught herself with the help of a set of CDs. Back in Egypt, her passion for mathematics flourished in high school, and she went on to study at Alexandria University, earning a bachelor's and then a master's degree there.

"After I graduated, I wanted to do further research outside of Egypt, I wanted to learn more about mathematics--that was my dream," says Alaa. Instead, family commitments kept her in Egypt, where she began teaching at her alma mater and elsewhere. But after nearly two years of a heavy workload, Alaa felt intellectually restless. She had little time to devote to her own research, and felt that she needed more mathematics courses to enhance her knowledge. Determined to keep her dream alive, she recalled the encouraging words of a teaching assistant who had suggested that she apply to ICTP's Postgraduate Diploma Programme. She followed through and has now successfully completed the Programme.

Reflecting on the past year's intense course work, Alaa says she felt completely lost at first. "I did not know a lot of the basic things; it was hard," she explains. Her post-graduate years of teaching mostly elementary mathematics was partly to blame for her rusty skills, but Alaa indicates that Egyptian instructional methods for mathematics are also a contributing factor. "The way they teach mathematics in Egypt is not how it should be; they don't transfer the motivation behind everything. For me, mathematics is an art: if you want to transfer it you need to transfer the soul itself--what is behind it, the motivation, why you are doing it. Otherwise it looks like just symbols."

Her ICTP professors, on the other hand, taught with enthusiasm and skill, and Alaa quickly made up for any shortcomings. "I never imagined I would learn so much mathematics in one year. I still feel like I need more time to have a deeper understanding of what I learned," she says.

With an ICTP Postgraduate Diploma in hand--as well as the prize for best mathematics student--Alaa plans to pursue the field further: she has been accepted into the Joint International ICTP/SISSA PhD Programme. Her long-term goal is to return to Egypt to teach, but not before she feels she has learned enough to be a good teacher, one who can transfer the excitement of and the meaning behind the math. "For me, I like the process itself, how you produce the theorems, how someone can create an idea in his mind and put it into language anyone can understand," she explains.

Perhaps the closing lines to her performance in Hypatia summarize best Alaa's attraction to mathematics: "In Mathematics, any idea requires a proof to be respected: it is not who you are or what you believe in or where you are from. No idea should be rejected except with a clear case that shows its failure, even if it is just one. There is no grey spectrum, there is no place for differences. And it is for this reason that I am in love with mathematics."

--Mary Ann Williams