By Amelia Tan
A RAFFLES Institution (Junior College) alumna has become the first Singaporean to clinch a major American award given to female undergraduates who excel in mathematics.
She is Ms Charmaine Sia, 23, just months away from graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a double degree in mathematics and physics.
She shares this year's Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize with Ms Hannah Alpert of the University of Chicago.
The annual award, given by the non-profit Association for Women in Mathematics since 1990, aims to encourage women to study and pursue careers in the mathematical sciences.
The prize is named after a founder of the association and comes with US$1,000 (S$1,400).
Nominees are expected to have shone in advanced mathematics courses and competitions, shown a real interest in the field and undertaken independent mathematics projects.
Said Ms Sia in an interview via e-mail: 'My mother is a mathematics teacher, so I've been exposed to maths since childhood. I don't think there's ever been a time when I was not interested in it.'
She is the older of two children. Her brother is in Raffles Institution, and their father is a civil engineer.
Her mother, Mrs Sia Wai Leng, 52, who teaches at National Junior College, said her daughter was born with a love for mathematics.
At the age of five, she was tackling mathematics problems meant for Secondary 1 students. She also took part in mathematics olympiads at the national level and the International Mathematical Olympiad, where she won three bronze medals.
'We just provided the environment for her to pursue her interest, such as by taking her to and picking her up from the olympiad training sessions. She did the work herself,' her mother said.
Mrs Sia added that her daughter hated talking about her achievements, and that she had to hear about the Schafer prize from a relative.
'When I asked her about it, she said she was lucky and told me to go to the website to find out more,' said her mother.
And even as Ms Sia said she was not sure she deserved the prize, her mentors at MIT and Williams College, where she did a summer research stint, say she is an 'astonishing' student who 'absorbs mathematics like a sponge'. They also say she is a 'mature mathematician' with the potential to become a top research mathematician.
Research is what she plans to do. She had picked MIT for its strong mathematics programme, and rejected scholarship offers from statutory boards in Singapore because they would have limited her career options.
But mathematics is not Ms Sia's only forte. She has also bagged straight As in economics, her minor subject, on top of her research work and learning Russian.
In whatever spare time she has left, she writes poetry and short stories 'for fun' and sketches teddy bears.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.