Thursday, September 17, 2020

James Petrie places a high premium on intellectual freedom. After graduating with a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of British Columbia (UBC), he accepted a position as a firmware engineer for a leading multinational technology company. “A few months in, I realized I was missing the opportunity to view problems through a wider lens and pursue the things that interested me most,” he remembers.

James Petrie on a dock with mountains in the background

At the urging of a friend who studied robotics at Waterloo, James took a deep dive into the website of a professor at the Faculty of Mathematics and discovered a project that involved numerical modeling and optimization, a field that had piqued his interest during his four years on a robotics team at UBC. He won acceptance into Waterloo’s Master’s program in Computational Mathematics and never looked back. 

Now as a PhD student in Applied Mathematics, James is taking advantage of every opportunity to follow his passions. For the past year, he has participated in a research group that is working to develop numerical methods for fracture mechanics, which has direct applications to fields like aviation, civil architecture and medicine. “One of the main projects I worked on involved developing a new fracture model based on a different optimization algorithm. After little trial and error, the simulations ran with much greater speed and efficiency,” he shares. “I’m enthusiastic about continuing to use modeling and optimization to solve complex problems.”

After the outbreak of COVID-19, James pivoted away from fracture mechanics research to explore his growing interest in contact tracing, the process of identifying people who have come in contact with those who are infected. “My initial models and general intuition told me that if we could develop effective contact tracing tests, we could slow the spread of the virus,” says James. While a member of Waterloo Effective Altruism Club, he worked with a colleague involved in Effective Altruism at Stanford on an early-stage COVID Watch smartphone app that is geared toward providing exposure data through using Bluetooth. James’ main contribution was the decentralized protocol that most contact tracing apps now use. “This way, we can provide alerts to people who have been exposed to the virus without tracking them and invading their privacy,” he explains.

James has yet to decide on a career path after finishing his PhD. “I’m considering the professorial route, but I would also be happy working in a research lab,” he expresses. In the meantime, he continues to thrive in the flexible environment Waterloo Math provides. “At Waterloo, I’m not painted into a box,” he says. “I have the freedom to follow my interests and collaborate with like-minded people to address the most relevant problems of our time.” 

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