Iranian-Swedish Researcher Wins Top European Math Prize

Monday, August 1, 2016 - 11:49

Sara Zahedi, Iranian-Swedish mathematician, has won the prestigious European Mathematical Society Prize.

As a professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, Zahedi is being recognized for her efforts to improve computer simulations of the behavior of fluids that do not mix together, and according to the organizers, "For her outstanding research regarding the development and analysis of numerical algorithms for partial differential equations with a focus on applications to problems with dynamically changing geometry.“ She is one of only nine female recipients since the EMS awards were first granted in 1992.

Zahedi is an expert in numerical analysis, a study of how to make computer simulations more efficient and accurate. She creates simulations of fluids that do not mix well, such as water, oil and gas. Her particular interest is in the boundary or "interface" where the two fluids come together, which consists of a form that is constantly changing.

The first of two examples for the application of her method that she specifically cited in an interview with the Plus magazine are lab tests in which blood interacts with other chemicals on a "chip" that is specially designed and manufactured for rapid detection of pathogens and abnormalities. Reagents are added to the blood, interfaces form and chemical processes happen on them.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that happened in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 gives context for the second example, where nearly 5 million barrels of oil were discharged into the sea. "People didn't want this oil to reach land, so they added a lot of surfactants into the sea to make the oil soluble in water. The problem with this is that you don't really know what is going to happen, for example how it is going to effect sea life. Computer simulations could give you insight into this kind of complex problem too."

Two issues need to be addressed for a simulation of this kind to be useful. One is how to represent the changing geometry of the interface between two fluids. The second problem is how to describe fluid processes that arise on such a changing interface, in which individual droplets can split, merge and generally deform in complex ways. "As the fluid evolves the interface may get stretched or deformed and the concentration will decrease or increase," explains Zahedi.

There are mathematical equations describing how the concentration will change, but the problem is that they are very difficult to solve. "In many cases we don't have a [neat mathematical formula that gives a solution]."Zahedi's method not only finds approximate solutions, but also gives a way of telling how accurate those solutions are.

Sara Zahedi also was one of the 1,300 participants, and among the stars of European congress of Mathematics in Berlin, is a proponent of marrying theory to practice, particulary when it comes to children: "We must go much further towards younger age groups and to show them how math is used in their real world; I also believe that programming should be taught as a discipline in the school curriculum."

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