In 1972, Scott Vanstone (BMath '70, MMath '71, PhD '74) walked into Ron Mullin’s (MA '60, PhD '64) office and told him he wanted to be his student. Originally, Scott started studying chemistry at the University of Waterloo, but switched to math.

According to Ron, “Scott had no choice but to become a mathematician … he said that he found out that math is more fun than hockey.” Ron, supervised by the now famous cryptographer William Tutte and the first student to graduate from Waterloo in 1964, was quickly convinced to take Scott as a student. The two became colleagues, co-founders and friends and their profound impact on the Waterloo and global cryptography community lives on today.

Scott, gord and Ron

From left to right: Scott Vanstone, Gord Agnew and distinguished professor emeritus Ron Mullin.

Monday, September 14 would have been Scott’s 73rd birthday. Since losing Scott to cancer in 2014, his wife Sherry Shannon-Vanstone has wanted to document and recognize Scott’s impact and has done so by recognizing September 14 as Profound Impact Day. Marking this inaugural occasion, Sherry’s friends, family and the Faculty of Mathematics have launched the Waterloo Math Digital Community, an online portal allowing users to trace Scott’s academic ancestry, math students (past and present) and see their connections to Scott and other researchers. The platform helps students, researchers and alumni network and engage with each other, displaying the collective impact the Faculty of Mathematics story has to tell.

As the academic grandson of Tutte and academic son of Ron, Scott comes from a strong pedigree. And he’s inspired many notable students since.
 

As he became a professor himself, his research covered combinatorial design theory, finite geometry and finite fields. In the 1980s, Scott focused on cryptography. He saw potential — not just in the mathematics of elliptic curve cryptography (ECC), but in talent. Alfred Menezes and Michele Mosca were inspired by Scott while still in high school and chose to study mathematics at Waterloo after meeting him.

 

The two alumni who became professors at Waterloo also focused on cryptography. Alfred became the managing director of the Centre for Applied Cryptographic Research and Michele was one of the earliest researchers at the Institute for Quantum Computing, and now has two startups, evolutionQ and softwareQ.

“Scott was driven by curiosity, had raw talent working with very difficult mathematics, full of energy, and wanted to have a positive impact on the world,” Michele remembers. “He always looked ahead with a broad view.”

Alfred Menezes, Scott Vanstone and Michele Mosca (right).

Alfred Menezes (right) and Michele Mosca (left) were inspired by Scott (middle) while still in high school and chose to study mathematics at Waterloo after meeting him. The two alumni who became professors at Waterloo also focused on cryptography.

 
Scott’s own research led to the implementation of ECC, a concept introduced in 1985. The secure and efficient methods for confidentiality and authentication of machine-to-machine communication was a practical breakthrough in cryptography. Along with Ron and Gord Agnew from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Scott founded Certicom.
 

Ronald and Scott

Ron and Scott in 2007.

Scott could take a very complex subject like ECC and break it down for non-technologists. He had to convince wireless companies that RSA — the commonly used public-key cryptosystem at the time — was slow and inefficient. Today, almost every wireless company uses Certicom technologies to embed the security right into its applications. The IP culture Scott created and the stream of talent he identified, including his future wife Sherry, led to the sale of Certicom to BlackBerry in 2009 which included around 450 patents, most of which were Scott’s.

Scott’s profound impact is still felt today through his books and research articles, patents, awards, family and notable students. While this is his story, Scott’s family is keen to hear the many other success stories from Waterloo’s mathematics family. Join the Waterloo Math Digital Community today and share yours.