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Her work "quite possibly represents a breakthrough"

Published Jan 26, 2024

Sara Zahedi believes that collaboration, transparency, and utilizing faculty knowledge in decision-making will improve trust and effectiveness in academia. She is new Professor in Numerical Analysis at the Department of Mathematics.

portrait of Sara Zahedi
Sara Zahedi

Could you describe your path to becoming a mathematics professor at KTH and the challenges you encountered?

After completing a Ph.D. at KTH in 2011, I started a postdoctoral position at Uppsala University. During this period, I developed new numerical algorithms that have contributed to my recognition in the field.

As my postdoc neared its end, an opportunity arose at KTH for an assistant professor role. My application was bolstered by a reviewer's comment that my work “quite possibly represents a breakthrough", leading to my appointment at KTH in January 2014. By 2018, I was promoted to associate professor.

The year 2023 marked a significant career milestone: I received offers to become a full professor at both Uppsala University and KTH. This decision was challenging because I lost trust in KTH's promotion system. However, witnessing how many in the faculty expressed support and took action for those affected by unpredictable changes in the promotion system, I chose to stay at KTH, committed to contributing positively to the system.

The path to professorship was filled with challenges, notably balancing family life and a demanding career. The academic landscape is highly competitive and not always welcoming, but I choose to focus on the positive experiences and the people who have helped me grow, including my PhD students, who have been an important part of my journey.

Could you mention some highlights of your career?

Throughout my career, I've been fortunate to secure substantial research funding and receive accolades, such as the EMS prize in 2016 and the Wallenberg Fellowship in 2019. These recognitions have made it possible for me to work with research I am passionate about and also allowed me to forge global connections. I've traveled to places I once dreamed of, like Chile, where I was a plenary speaker at a conference on numerical methods for partial differential equations.

New method for simulations involving deformable objects

Accurate computer simulations that involve solving partial differential equations, often require a computational mesh that fits the examined object's shape, like an airplane wing or a biological cell. However, when objects change shape or interact, adjusting these meshes can be complex and costly. A new approach eliminates the need for a perfectly fitting mesh without compromising on accuracy.

What is the focus of your research now?

The focus of my research is on the development, analysis, and implementation of computational methods for solving Partial Differential Equations (PDEs) in and on domains defined by evolving geometries. In particular, I develop methods that also conserve physical quantities and identities such as mass. The goal is to provide efficient and accurate tools for computer simulations involving deformable objects. Such deforming objects or geometries/interfaces may for example be cell membranes, interfaces separating immiscible fluids, ice sheets, heart valves guarding the exits of the heart cavities, or an airplane wing in a shape optimization process.

Some potential applications?

In many areas in science we are depending more and more on computer based simulations. Simulations play a crucial role for predicting climate changes, designing new industrial products such as airplanes with reduced weight and fuel consumption, and for understanding and predicting complex biological processes such as those occurring in a cell or an organ, and these are just a few examples.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing a career in mathematics?

Patience is key; maintain a positive outlook, especially during challenging times. Don’t hesitate to seek advice and engage with others. Dedicate yourself to hard work, always striving to do your best. Focus on the positive aspects, learn from the challenges you face and don’t’ forget to have fun along the way.

How do you envision the future of mathematics education?

I believe mathematics and programming are subjects that are very important for the future and students realize this. There is a lot of change going on and we are in a phase where we may see rapid advancements in areas such as machine learning and quantum computing. These changes may significantly impact the future of mathematical education.

With the increasing availability of online resources, students now have unprecedented access to materials. In light of this shift, adapting our teaching methods to this new reality is imperative. I believe that teaching formats providing direct feedback and support will become even more crucial. 

You are one of the members of the Faculty Board at SCI. Do you have any specific goals in this new role?

My main goal is to ensure that decisions carrying substantial implications involve the input of a broad spectrum of the faculty and do not come as a surprise to the majority within the faculty.

By prioritizing transparency and collaboration, I believe the school and KTH can improve their decision-making processes, which will help build trust in the organization and its leaders. Furthermore, I think that the knowledge our faculty members have is a really important asset that should be used well.