With a depth and breadth of expertise, over 1,100 students make up the vibrant Faculty of Mathematics graduate community. Read the stories below to learn more about a few of those students, and check back regularly for new feature profiles.
Building on an existing mathematical model of epidemics, Kevin Church (PhD '19) and his supervisor found that the timing of vaccinations is key to controlling disease outbreaks. “Most provinces’ influenza/vaccine awareness pages do not tend to emphasize the importance of getting the flu vaccine when it becomes available, with some barely mention timing.”
A modified model developed by Church and his supervisor, Professor Xinzhi Liu, is built around the idea of pulse vaccination, a disease control policy where, at certain times, a portion of the population is vaccinated altogether.
Adoption of their research could help manage outbreaks of diseases such as the flu and measles. "When vaccination is added to a time-delay mathematical model of epidemics, you can in some sense dictate when infection spikes happen if the vaccine is strong and enough people get vaccinated."
Read more about Kevin's research.
Irene Melgarejo Lermas
Condensing the complexities of quantum field theory into a three-minute presentation is a formidable task, but Irene Melgarejo Lermas rose to the challenge to win the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. She used a puzzle analogy to explain her research in quantum field theory, which lies at the intersection of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. “Essentially, the detectors we use to study the quantum field can only give us small, scrambled pieces of the puzzle, so we turn to machine learning to see the bigger picture,” she explained.
As she completes her thesis, Irene has her sights set on another graduate degree from Waterloo. “I plan to continue focusing on machine learning now that I’ve seen its practical applications,” she shares. “Waterloo provides an ideal environment to study quantum computing. This is where new ideas begin.”
Read more about Irene's journey.
Combinatorics and Optimization
Not long after beginning his graduate program at Waterloo, Matthew Sullivan discovered a passion for Ultimate Frisbee. Today, he serves as the chief of the Ultimate Frisbee intramural program while continuing to referee and play as often as he can. “Like all the intramural sports at Waterloo, Ultimate provides a great way to de-stress, stay in shape, and balance the academic with the social,” he says.
A predictable, well-defined game of 14 players feels like a much-needed respite for students like Matthew, whose chosen field of graph theory is significantly less straightforward. At a basic level, graph theory examines the sets of points (“vertices”) and lines (“edges”) that model relationships between objects on graphs. From optimizing road networks to designing computer chips, graph theory presents an infinite supply of complex problems to solve. Matthew points to the many opportunities to collaborate with like-minded researchers as a highlight of his time at Waterloo. “As a graduate student, you get so many opportunities to connect with researchers from all over the world,” he shares. “This collaboration generates a great atmosphere for discovery.”
Read more about Matthew's experience.
Caelan Wang is the recipient of the Amit and Meena Chakma Award for Exceptional Teaching by a Student (2019). Wang believes that creating a healthy and engaging learning environment goes beyond simply giving information. It is about creating a friendly and personal environment that stimulates interaction and academic growth, while having some fun. Wang works to empower students and emphasizes to students to not let their perceived disadvantages or vulnerabilities define them.
Wang continues to look for learning opportunities to grow in her teaching, as well as in others by mentoring graduate students in their teaching through the Centre of Teaching Excellence as a Graduate Instructional Developer and a recipient of the Fundamentals of University Teaching Certificate.
Jinjiang ‘J.J.’ Lian
Jinjiang ‘J.J.’ Lian first realized he wanted to become a data scientist while working as a data manager for clinical research at a university healthcare facility in the US. “I noticed that many healthcare workers lacked the skill set to collect and interpret patient data correctly, which negatively impacted patient care,” he recalls. “I decided that whether I ended up in healthcare, tech, or another industry altogether, I wanted to use my data skills to help people.”
As J.J. flipped through graduate program brochures, Waterloo’s Masters of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (MDSAI) program caught his attention. “There are a lot of programs in computer science in Canada, but I saw how much effort Waterloo put into designing its MDSAI program,” J.J. remembers. “Professors even offer different versions of the same course to meet the needs of students with different backgrounds.” Attracted by the level of personalization available to students, as well as the abundant co-op opportunities, J.J. joined one of the first cohorts of MDSAI students at Waterloo Math.
Read more about J.J's experience.
A self-described “lifelong technology enthusiast,” Max Niebergall enrolled in the Master of Data Science & Artificial Intelligence (MDSAI) program to launch a impactful career in data science.
As an undergraduate student in computer science at Wilfred Laurier University, Max realized that he was only just beginning to skim the surface when it came to developing critical skills in data science. “The MDSAI program gives me the opportunity to double down and master skills in AI, machine learning, statistics, data mining and other areas that will be foundational for the future,” he affirmed.
As he completes his first months in the program, Max points to the quality of the Waterloo Math community as the clear highlight of his Waterloo experience so far. “I’ve always believed in the power of community,” he reflected. “I learned how to make a positive contribution through participating extensively in Laurier Rotaract and other student clubs, and I hope to make a similar contribution at Waterloo.”
Read more about Max's experience.
Alyssa Schultz Dey
She grew up in Alberta and Nova Scotia, but she considers Nanchang, China, her second home. After earning undergraduate degrees in pure mathematics and education, Alyssa Schultz Dey took a leap of faith and accepted a teaching position at the Nanchang No. 2 High School Sino-Canadian Nova Scotia International Program in southeastern China.
Alyssa always knew that she wanted to pursue a master’s degree, but it took extensive research to discover the right fit. “I was looking for a program that would not only help me improve as a teacher but also refresh and increase my own understanding of mathematical concepts,” she shared. Schultz Dey came across the Master of Mathematics for Teachers (MMT) program at the Faculty of Mathematics at the same time she was helping her students register for the University’s math contests. “I sensed that the program would give me an opportunity to dig deeper,” she said.
As she reaches the halfway point of the program, Schultz Dey has already noticed a difference in the quality of her teaching. “The MMT program has changed the way I approach problems,” she explained. “My courses push me to prove why my final answers are true, not just come up with a final answer, which is exactly what I push my students to do. The education I have received has directly translated to the classroom.”
Read more about Alyssa's experience.
In her first year at Waterloo Math, Hayley Reid’s experience as a TA ignited a passion for teaching. “One of the biggest highlights of graduate school has been to stand in front of a class and teach students new concepts,” she says. “For me, it’s an overwhelmingly exciting thing to be able to witness those lightbulb moments.” After finishing her degree, Hayley aspires to teach mathematics at the university level. To continue building her teaching credentials, she has taken advantage of training opportunities like the Math Faculty Graduate Teaching Seminar and Fundamentals of University Teaching program at the Centre for Teaching Excellence.
Reflecting on her time at Waterloo, Hayley appreciates the seemingly limitless opportunities for graduate students in the Faculty of Math. “There is such a large math community here that no matter what you want to study, you can find someone who will be able to supervise you,” she says. “If you want to learn to teach, there are ways to do that. Anything you want to do, you can do here.”
Read more about Hayley's experience.
Your Netflix suggestions and recommended connections on LinkedIn use graph databases to help make predictions. Computer Science PhD student Amine Mhedhbi's research focuses on understanding and developing new techniques across the graph database stack to improve execution performance of graph analytical workloads.
Mhedbhi leads a research project to develop a new in-memory graph database management system called GraphflowDB. His research focuses on two primary questions - how to perform very fast joins to detect complex patterns in graph-structured data, and how to scale an in-memory graph database system.
Mhedbhi's award-winning research helps to improve the capabilities for very complex queries, such as those that can detect intricate fraud patterns in financial networks. For this research, Mhedbhi was the only recipient from Canada to receive a 2020 Microsoft Research PhD Fellowship.
Read more about Amine's research.
Coding strips utilize comics to present programming concepts in a more accessible way. They chose comics because it is a medium well-known for its ability to explain complicated concepts and processes effectively through visual storytelling.
Sangho Suh, the lead author and a PhD student in Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science presented Coding Strip: A Pedagogical Tool for Teaching and Learning Programming Concepts through Comics at the IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing.
In the follow-up study, Suh also taught a Waterloo undergraduate computer science course and tested four use cases of coding strips. They include using coding strips to introduce concepts and codes, review, and practice coding. The researchers found that students thoroughly enjoyed learning with coding strips and benefitted from these use cases in various ways. This work, Using Comics to Introduce and Reinforce Programming Concepts in CS1, was recently accepted and will be presented at a premier computing education conference, ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education.
“There are a lot of challenges associated with engaging students who are learning to code because they find it to be abstract and difficult,” Sangho Suh explained. “Our work shows that teachers can use coding strips to address this challenge.”
Read more about Sangho's research.
While working on his undergraduate degree and Master’s in computational math, Maysum Panju started learning about machine learning. That led to his interests in developing algorithms and theoretical proofs, and he decided to start his PhD in statistics.
Now in his fifth year of his PhD, Panju is focused on tackling a problem called symbolic regression. “A common application of this could be learning the natural laws of physics. If you’re given data about a physical system, you don’t necessarily need to know the different physical laws; you can uncover the laws by uncovering the data sets only. That’s the problem I was trying to solve.”
Panju has always been interested in practical applications, but enjoyed the efficiency, accuracy and data requirements of theoretical proofs. He recently competed in the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition and his presentation on his research earned him an award from the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science.
Read more about Maysum's research.
Two years into his undergraduate degree at Sichuan University, Chao Qian regretted his decision to study business management. “I came to the realization that management skills are better learned outside of the classroom,” he said. “I wanted to learn something more solid and quantitative. That’s where my journey to Waterloo began.”
After completing a dual degree in business management and mathematics at Sichuan University and Prince Edward Island University, a professor invited Qian to join a summer research project that focused on applying quantitative methods to portfolio selection.
“I was fascinated by the work, but I didn’t know anything about mathematical finance as a whole,” Qian admitted. “The people I met at Waterloo encouraged me to apply for the Masters of Quantitative Finance (MQF) program to learn how to apply my programming and math skills to financial problems.” Sixteen fast-paced months in the MQF Program affirmed the passion for programming that had first taken root in PEI.
Read more about Chao's story.