SFU celebrates arrival of first Canada 150 Research Chair
How can mathematical tools use data to understand the evolution of infectious bacteria and viruses? How can these tools improve how we control infections?
Caroline Colijn, Imperial College mathematician and now a Canada 150 Research Chair at Simon Fraser University, has just arrived at SFU and her research aims to answer those questions. She holds the Chair in Mathematics for Infection, Evolution and Public Health, in the Department of Mathematics, and is the first of two Canada 150 Research Chairs to arrive at the university. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun will join SFU’s School of Communication this winter from Brown University to hold the Chair in New Media.
Last year, to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, the Canada 150 Research Chairs Program invested $117.6 million to enhance Canada's reputation as a global centre for science, research and innovation excellence. The program provides Canadian institutions with a one-time investment to attract top-tier, internationally based scholars and researchers to Canada.
SFU News spoke with Colijn about her research and how she feels about joining SFU as the new Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Infection, Evolution and Public Health.
Tell us about your academic background and research interests.
I started out at the University of British Columbia where I studied mathematics and physics. From there, I achieved my master’s degree in environmental studies at York University before continuing to a PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Waterloo. My broad interests and academic background are a great fit for what I do now, which connects me to public health researchers, epidemiologists and biologists, as well as mathematicians and statisticians.
Please explain the fundamental values of your research. Why is your research important to Canadians and global citizens?
Infectious diseases—and their evolution—are a major public health challenge across the world. I seek to build mathematical and statistical tools to make the best possible use of the rich data available from sequencing technologies. The ultimate aim is to improve how we control infections.
What are some of your key career achievements and how do they inform your current and future research?
I have built mathematical tools to use genomic data for understanding how infectious bacteria and viruses evolve and spread. Key advancements in this area can help us better understand who infected whom, and when in an infectious disease outbreak.
Currently, using pathogen sequences, we can estimate where there might be unsampled cases, when people were infected, and how long it took to identify cases. Now, we are developing ways to use more individual-level data, such as case locations and clinical histories. We are improving the models and applying the method to data from around the world.
Please expand on how your research is innovative and strives for research excellence.
My work spans mathematics, statistics and data, and genomics and public health. The ability to gather genomic data in public health is outpacing our ability to interpret the data. By creating new tools there are exciting opportunities for mathematics-centered research to make strong contributions. My research team has combined innovations from branching processes, discrete mathematics, computational biology and evolutionary theory to meet challenges in health and medicine.
What does becoming a Canada 150 Research Chair mean to you?
Becoming a Canada 150 Research Chair is a great opportunity to build a research group in Canada, in this dynamic and exciting area. I have hugely appreciated the opportunities I’ve enjoyed in the United Kingdom, and now I’m delighted to be back in Canada. I look forward to building up my research group, to new collaborations and to teaching here at SFU.