Switching Gears

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The University of Waterloo was Anita Chen’s second choice. In hindsight, she is “absolutely grateful” for the turn of events that led her from China to the Faculty of Mathematics.

A modern-day Renaissance woman, Chen chose to major in Mathematics/Financial Analysis and Risk Management (FARM) and minor in music while pursuing passions in the fields of mental health, family studies, and data science. She was initially drawn to the Faculty of Mathematics for the career prospects, she acknowledges. “If you’re in math, you never have to worry about future employment,” she said. “But, at the same time, Waterloo offers an abundance of opportunities to explore other subjects and grow as a person.”

Initially, Chen planned to pursue a career in the field of data science. She completed a co-op term for the Canadian Red Cross, where she helped build the organization’s first set of ethical guidelines for machine learning algorithm development. “AI is going to be powerful and disruptive, but at the same time, it is going to be risky and dangerous,” she recognized. During another co-op term at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, she focused on leveraging machine learning and AI to optimize decision-making processes within the organization. While she enjoyed her co-op experiences, she felt pulled in a different direction.

“After I declared a minor in music, I took a music therapy course that made me consider a helping profession for the future,” she remembered. “I started taking classes related to sexuality, marriage, and family studies, and other topics that have always interested me. The divorce rate in both Canada and China is incredibly high, and I’ve always thought about ways to help.” As Chen looks ahead to graduation in the spring of 2021, she is applying for master’s programs related to mental health.

While Chen switched gears near the end of her time at Waterloo, she appreciates the ways in which her math classes and co-op terms prepared her for the next step in her career. “I’m so grateful for the opportunities Waterloo Math provided to develop skills that transfer to any discipline,” she reflected. “Through my co-op terms, I was able to build a strong professional network that will serve me well in the future.”

When she reflects on her experiences at Waterloo, Chen has a key piece of advice to hand down to younger students: “Never stop exploring. It’s not like you pick a major and your life is set. Keep the ability to look back, reflect, and find a way to get where you want to go.”