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School of Mathematical Sciences

Meet the Academic - Dr Shabnam Beheshti

Dr Shabnam Beheshti is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, as well as incoming Director of Education at the School of Mathematical Sciences from September. Here she shares more about her research and proactive teaching style, which was recently recognised in the Queen Mary Student Union’s Education Awards.

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How did you come to work at Queen Mary?

I first joined Queen Mary back in 2014 as a Grace Chisolm Young Fellow, courtesy of the London Mathematical Society. At the time, I was an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University but looking to relocate to the UK. I decided to take the leap and got in touch with a contact at the School, Dr Juan Valiente Kroon, who fortunately said he was happy to host me. Following my fellowship, I undertook a series of temporary positions before being hired as a Senior Lecturer just over 3 years ago. And Juan is now a dear friend and colleague!   

Did you always know you wanted to be a mathematician?

I actually started out in my Bachelor’s Degree certain I’d become a Physicist, but it turned out I was a disaster in the labs and began to find myself gravitating towards understanding "why things worked" and the mathematical aspects of physics problems. Gradually I started to feel like "my tribe" was maths. I was more comfortable there and thought the questions were more interesting. At that point, I wasn’t really sure I was going to become a mathematician but I thought "this is cool I’m going to go ahead and do a master", which I did at Texas Tech University. It’s where I fell in love with Complex Analysis and that really sealed the deal for me.

Could you tell us a bit about your research?

I’m a Geometric Analyst and my research is in Mathematical Relativity, but recently I’ve moved into the field of Relativistic Hydrodynamics. This means I basically study fluids that move at relativistic speeds or are under the influence of strong gravitational fields. My work involves interfacing with a range of researchers including astronomers, applied mathematicians and physicists. It’s a very different beast to my previous research where I used to prove theorems in pure maths on symmetric spaces.

You’re also the incoming Director of Education at the School. How does your research influence your teaching?

I teach topics like Differential Equations, General Relativity and Complex Variables so it’s easy to bring in these amazing problems we’re working on as part of my lectures. I think that’s an important part of research-led teaching, not to segregate those ideas away from undergraduate and PGT programmes. And as a lecturer, you can’t help but get excited about what you’re talking about if what you’re talking about is your life’s work.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I think the best way to put it is proactive. I’m proactive in seeking feedback from students and build it in so they can’t avoid giving it to me. For example, I recently taught a module in Chaos and Fractals for the first time. I didn’t want to wait until the module evaluations to see whether or not I’d done certain things right, so instead, I introduced some general questions into the students weekly assessments that covered things that I wanted to know, such as  "what was the hardest thing I learnt this week" to check how things were going for students. I think this approach worked really well as students realised they could have a conversation with me through their work, not just via lectures. It helped them feel listened to, and even if I couldn’t do something about their specific feedback, I could at least acknowledge they’d told me a piece of information and explain my stance on it. My enthusiasm is also something that I feel has been really important, especially in such a challenging year for everyone.

On that subject, how did you find the transition to online learning this year? 

I started this year with a huge amount of trepidation, firstly in my ability to deal with the technology. I ended up giving live lectures online for three of my four contact hours and recorded the fourth hour each week. This allowed me to adjust my lecture based on what the students had asked me over the week, or we needed to recap. I think the students liked this combination, so whilst it was mostly live lectures, the recorded lecture gave them some freedom to work with their own schedules. The biggest surprise for me was how interactive students were on the chat. I think students who would never have asked questions in a "normal" setting were stepping up and there was a lovely dynamic that was natural to the online medium we were using. This was eye-opening for me and made me change my mind a bit about what lectures "should" look like.

You were recently named “Student Voice Champion” at the latest Education Awards – what did that mean to you?

I’m really proud of the Student Voice Champion award because I made a real effort to incorporate the student voice into different aspects of the School’s work. Bringing the students into the fold for various committees meant recruiting and training students so that we were able to make the most of these roles. I think within some committee meetings it can be easy to lose the essential aspect of simply asking students what they think (or need). For me giving them an equal place at the right table is important and I think it’s served the School and students well.

You have recently been awarded a London Mathematical Society Undergraduate Research Bursary, and you will be supervising a Y2 student in an 8-week research internship. Why do you think initiatives like this are important? What does this opportunity mean to you?

In fact, I have the pleasure of co-supervising two students this summer with a colleague from the Geometry and Analysis Group, Arick Shao.  We managed to secure funding through the EPSRC and the LMS for these two students to work on a mathematical model of relativistic viscous fluids appearing in cosmology.  If things go to plan, we may very well have a nice paper to write beyond the end of the internship! I was very active in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (or REUs) when I was in the USA and am very happy to see this idea taking hold in the UK as well.  Initiatives like this have been shown to serve as an excellent and effective platform for diversifying the STEM pipeline, especially when there is a focus on recruiting underrepresented groups. Also importantly, these internships also help break down the artificial barriers we sometimes create between research and teaching which is hugely limiting on both sides. By enabling more young people to access research at the forefront of their chosen degree, we encourage more diversity of ideas… and at the end of the internship, not only do students see themselves as researchers, but staff get a glimpse of their potential future colleagues.

What’s the best thing about working in the School, and the Faculty?

For me, the best thing about working in the School is my colleagues, both academic and PS staff. One of the first things I noticed about this School when I arrived was how collegial it was (and still is), across research groups and across ranks. It carries you when things get tough, especially this year. It has helped me feel valued, enabled me to discuss high-level scientific ideas and contribute to the mathematical community. This all makes me feel like the School is a place I want to invest my time in, it’s a powerful combination of excellent mathematicians, alongside being lovely human beings. And the Faculty, it’s almost the same thing at a different scale. I feel I’ve developed a network that I can speak with openly about a variety of issues, be it science or education.  Colleagues across the University, not just in Science and Engineering have an appetite for discussion and collaboration; people are willing to give you some of their time, whatever your request. That generosity of spirit is quite rare.