An MSc student in Mathematics, Sarah Selkirk, is the worthy recipient of the prestigious S2A3 medal for the best MSc student at Stellenbosch University (SU) in the natural, engineering and medical sciences.
The S2A3 Masters Medals (bronze) have been awarded annually since 1981 by the Southern Africa Association for the Advancement of Science to the most outstanding research student in a scientific subject per South African university. Founded in 1902, it is the oldest scientific organisation in South Africa.
Selkirk worked largely independently to complete her MSc thesis in only one year, with two papers resulting from her mostly original work already accepted for publication. She leaves for Austria in January 2020, where she will continue with her doctoral research in the field of combinatorics at the University of Klagenfurt.
Prof Ingrid Rewitzky, head of SU's Department of Mathematical Sciences, says Selkirk's MSc thesis is rare in a discipline such as mathematics, where original research is only expected at doctoral level.
According to her study leader, Prof Stephan Wagner, large parts of her thesis were entirely her own idea and worked out completely by her: “Within the short time span of one year, she managed to familiarise herself with a number of ideas, concepts and methods in lattice path enumeration, and wrote a well-rounded thesis, largely consisting of original work."
Selkirk's thesis investigates different aspects of lattice path enumerations. These are combinatorial objects which can be used in fields such as probability theory, statistics and computer science. By studying lattice paths, we can better understand and analyse dynamic data structures, which are fundamental to almost every piece of technology we use today – from storing files on a computer to using an online search engine.
In addition to Selkirk's academic achievement, she has also been actively involved in the Mathematics Division as a tutorial assistant for first and second year mathematics students. During 2019 she was a member of the organising committee for the African Women in Mathematics Conference hosted at SU in July 2019, and she founded the Stellenbosch University Mathematics Society (SUMS) which organises weekly mathematics seminars for undergraduate students.
Selkirk received numerous awards during her time at SU. In 2016 she was one of the top 32 first year students at SU and the top performing first year student in the Faculty of Science. In 2018 she was the recipient of the SU Rector's Award for academic achievement throughout her undergraduate studies, and in 2019 she was awarded one of three TATA masters scholarships at the South African Women in Science Awards.
This former learner from Hudson Park High School in East London says she enjoys doing mathematics and working on her thesis did not feel like work: “I believe in Parkinson's Law, that work will expand so as to fill the time available for its completion. So I set the goal of doing my MSc in one year and worked to try and achieve this."
She also thanked her study leaders, Prof Stephan Wagner and Prof Helmut Prodinger, for all the time and effort they have invested in her, and her parents Caroline and Wayne Selkirk for their support and encouragement.
Photo: Stefan Els