A holistic approach to a PhD

Friday, November 5, 2021

Maliha AhmedBeing a PhD student means spending a lot of time focusing on a single research project. A PhD student learns everything they can about a topic, sets out to add something new to the field, and becomes an expert in one specialized area.

But for Maliha Ahmed, a PhD student in the Department of Applied Mathematics, becoming a renowned expert in a specific academic area doesn’t get in the way of being great at other things, too. Along with her academic research, Ahmed is an accomplished teacher and is involved in community outreach and service to the university. She defies the caricature of the narrowly focused PhD.

Ahmed’s research is in the field of computational neuroscience, where she investigates the thalamocortical system. She is working to create a computational tool that can simulate some of what happens in an actual human brain.

“It may not be as detailed, of course, as the human brain,” Ahmed said. “We cannot possibly capture every single detail. But a computational model does allow us to simulate what would happen in an actual human brain on a level that is feasible and can be worked with.”

Having these kinds of computational models helps drive science and medicine forward. The models allow researchers to simulate treatments or interventions for specific neurological problems, giving clinicians and medical doctors a better idea of what may work.

“My PhD research is an extension of my master’s research,” said Ahmed. “In that project, I was working on a model for a cortical circuit to study childhood absence seizures. Now I’m looking at the role of hormones in the resolution of these absence seizures. It’s exciting because I used to think if I were ever to go into medicine, I would love to go into neuroscience.”

Before doing her master’s and then beginning a PhD, Ahmed became a certified teacher, completing a BEd at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). Her teaching area was in physics and mathematics for junior high and high school students.

She has continued her teaching and learning in graduate school, working as a teaching assistant and occasionally filling in for lectures. Ahmed is looking forward to teaching as a sole charge instructor after she passes her candidacy, which is when the Department of Applied Mathematics encourages PhDs to take up extra teaching duties.

“My mom was a teacher, and that’s what I grew up wanting to be,” Ahmed said. “After completing undergrad, my interest in teaching shifted a little, and I knew I wanted to teach in a university setting. A big part of my interest in academia is because I think it’s a good balance between being able to do research and my passion for teaching.”

Outside of her more academically oriented work in research and teaching, Ahmed is also active in service to the university and community organizations. She is a graduate representative for the Women in Mathematics Committee, an advocacy and outreach initiative within the Faculty of Mathematics for women and girls in math. Ahmed is also the graduate representative on the university’s HeForShe Committee, a United Nations campaign that Waterloo took up to boost the participation of women in STEM fields.

Along with her service to the university, Ahmed is the director of a grassroots organization, Bright Learners Development Programs, which offers free study help and educational services to youth. In this role, Ahmed leverages her teaching skills to help junior high and high school students in the community.

Asked what motivates her going forward, Ahmed pointed to inspirations within the Department of Applied Mathematics.

“I see all these great scholars around me, like my supervisor Sue Ann Campbell. And like Anita Layton, Ghazal Geshnizjani, my committee members, and so many others in the department. I see their passion for what they do and their dedication to helping us grad students succeed. It’s very heartening. It motivates me to reach that level where I can give back in the same way.”

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