EVEN from young, Dr Teh Su Yean was always up to a challenge. When told something was too difficult to do, she would do her best to prove it otherwise.
That was also the case when her parents advised her that science stream was going to be hard when she was deciding which option to go for — science or arts — for upper secondary school. Instead of subscribing to the norm, she took up science all the way to the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) level and succeeded to do a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics degree at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).
“I love mathematics. Despite doing quite well in biology at school, I chose mathematics because it’s cool. There is this self-satisfaction that you get when you solve a problem,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.
Now an associate professor at USM’s School of Mathematical Sciences, the 36 year old is taking her love for mathematics and problem solving to greater heights.
Her latest research project is in unifying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) towards sustainable management of coastal resources.
“During my undergraduate days, my classmates and I memorised math formula, proved the theorem and regurgitated what we learned in class during exams. After obtaining my bachelors degree, I felt that I was not prepared to face the working world yet and that I needed to brush up on my skills and knowledge. That’s why I decided to do postgraduate studies in mathematics.
“However, I didn’t want to look at just the theoretical aspects of mathematics any more. Instead, I wanted to see the application side of it, how it was used in the industry and by people. My main aim was to use it to contribute to society and to the country,” she said.
She found her purpose when she attended a lecture by Professor Koh Hock Lye, who got her interested in mathematical modelling. He soon became her supervisor for her masters and PhD studies.
“I learned how mathematics modelling can be used to simulate a real system that would point to possible effects of an incident. For example, the effects on marine life when a project is developed too near a river can be obtained with the use of mathematics. Acquiring those kind of information is what got me interested,” said Teh.
For her masters, Teh did mathematical modelling on the air and water environment in USM.
“There was a new chemistry building next to the mathematics building and we were worried that the chemical emissions from the labs could affect the health of the people in our building. So, we calculated the reach of the emission and checked whether the concentration of the emission was at a hazardous or at a permitted level,” she explained.
For her PhD, Teh switched her study topic to mathematical modelling for tsunami hazards. And as part of her PhD programme in USM, she received a scholarship by UNESCO/Keizo Obuchi Research Fellowship to pursue a research on wetlands hydrology and ecosystems at the University of Miami which involved frequent research visits to the Everglades of Florida.
The work she did with the US Geological Survey on the Everglades, as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) during that period, inspired her current research.
“Climate change has had observable effects on the environment: loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise, longer and more intense heat waves, and extreme weather patterns. These are why natural disasters such as floods, droughts, hurricanes and storm surges are occurring more frequently and more intensely than before.
“Malaysia is not spared, as climate change is a global issue and is inevitable. Sea water inundation and salt water intrusion associated with climate change impacts will cause serious problem in the salinisation of fresh groundwater which has a negative impact on growth and the productivity of plants,” said Teh.
To address the consequence of the pressing issue, Teh said it is important to harness the power of STEM combined.
“The technology and mathematic aspect of my current research is the development of a coupled hydrology-salination-vegetation model to enable the projection of short and long-term effects on water quality of the soil and the groundwater in areas exposed to salinity intrusion, as well as the potential of changes in vegetation in affected areas. The science and engineering aspect of this project mainly involves field work to obtain vegetation and soil data to drive the simulation model,” she explained.
For her ongoing research, Teh netted the 2017 L’OrÈal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship award which among others amount to a RM30,000 grant.
“Through mathematics, I found the possibility of solving real-life problems. It pushes me to be creative and to challenge myself to find solutions to problems,” she said.
“Science is not only for smart people or geeks. Do not be intimidated by unproven stories you hear about science. Science opens many doors to a great and fulfilling career in any discipline,” said Teh.