Professor, Department of Mathematics
Combinatorics, Discrete Mathematics, Mathematics of Communications
Dr. Jonathan Jedwab loves the simplicity of combinatorics, in that the problems are very easy to state and typically, they have a low barrier to entry, i.e., you don't need to know a whole lot of advanced mathematics to get started. The problems may be deceptively simple, but reaching a solution can require some very complex mathematical tools – that's the attraction to the subject. As a mathematician, what began for him as mathematical problem solving in digital technologies has evolved into a prolific research program that tackles problems across all facets of science, from determining the most stable way an RNA sequence can fold in three dimensions to communicating securely using the principles of quantum mechanics.
What life experiences led you to pursue a career in research?
I was born to do this job! My mom still tells the story of when I was a very young boy and I would beg her to give me sums, more sums, harder sums; I was fascinated by numbers and puzzles. My work now is a natural extension of that, tackling hard problems and puzzles. I am fortunate that I found a way to get paid to do what I love.
How did you arrive at the interface between mathematics and digital technology?
After completing a Masters equivalent at Cambridge, I found a Ph.D. supervisor at the University of London. He had contacts in industry and suggested that I do my Ph.D. part-time while working in industry. As it turned out, I spent 14 years with Hewlett-Packard, which was an exciting place to be. I could combine theoretical investigation with applications, working with digital communications engineers to design systems that communicate through space or time, to build networks, and to design measuring devices. These projects all involved solving problems in combinatorics, namely arranging objects subject to multiple constraints. I got lots of practice solving them and also developed my own research interests around that work. However, I didn't have much autonomy, and I was always at risk of having to change projects.
I've been at SFU for 14 years now. I truly enjoy having the freedom to craft the job to my liking.
What part of your research gives you the most satisfaction?
I still regard my research as a collection of puzzles and solving any of them is satisfying. Sometimes when you solve more than one and see them side-by-side, a pattern emerges that tells you something about the bigger picture; when you establish that, it really is the most satisfying part of research. I also love to present the work I have done in public and get new ideas from the reactions of others, as well as to help others develop their skills.
Do your students find their own problems or do you assign problems to work on?
Initially, I thought I needed to supervise people doing the problems I was interested in, but I've relaxed on that score over time. Students sometimes ask for problems I'm interested in, but others will tell me that none of those problems excites them. So I encourage them to find a problem that we can work on together productively and they can educate me as to why it is an interesting problem. This brings a much greater range to the group.