SFU computing science graduand Kathryn Nurse, pictured above during her military service. Photo credit to Jarett Cranston.

Former Armed Forces pilot charts course to computing science success

October 07, 2019

By Ariane Madden

As she crosses the convocation dais to accept her MSc in computing science from Simon Fraser University this month, Kathryn Nurse’s spirits will be high—perhaps almost as high as the 35,000 feet in the air that she’s used to.

“I could have had a very different life,” says Nurse, reflecting on her 14 years as a pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces. During that time, she also completed a bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Waterloo.

“But I’m so proud that I came to SFU.”

Originally from Ontario, Nurse left the military to begin a new life in Vancouver. Soon after, she stumbled upon a book co-authored by SFU computing science professor Pavol Hell.

“I really liked some of the [mathematical] proofs in the book. I knew I wanted to do math like that,” she says. 

So she embarked on a master’s degree co-supervised by professors Hell in the School of Computing Science and Matt DeVos in the Department of Mathematics (Faculty of Science).

The leap into academia felt like a risk compared to the military, she says. “I didn’t know where my studies would take me or even if I would be successful.” 

But if following one’s passion is a measure of success, then Nurse has certainly found it.

“I’m interested in graph algorithms,” says Nurse. “Graphs are useful in math, where they can model relationships between pairs or objects. Many natural problems, such as the shortest driving route somewhere, can be phrased using graphs.

“We can use computers to solve some of these problems, but computers can’t do everything. So I’m looking for computer algorithms in graph theory.”

For her master’s thesis, Nurse successfully devised an algorithm that allows a computer to solve the graph problem she examined (maximum linear arrangement of directed graphs, or MaxDLA) in an efficient and simple manner.

MaxDLA is a problem in math related to one used for how computers physically realise certain circuits in an optimal way—that problem is called Minimum Linear Arrangement, or MinLA. Circuits in a computer can be seen as networks, and graph algorithms such as MinLA are useful for efficiently modelling these networks.

Nurse’s work addresses MaxDLA, which helps to provide structural information about a directed graph—a graph with vertices whose edges have directions associated with them. Understanding and developing these algorithms has important theoretical and practical benefits for computing science and the tools developed for advanced computers.

“There’s a particular reduction in my thesis that, to my knowledge, is completely new to the field,” says Nurse, who started her PhD with the same supervisors this fall. 

Her doctoral research is supported by an NSERC $150,000 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and a British Columbia Graduate Scholarship. Nurse also acknowledges her husband who cares for their two children full-time, allowing her to focus on her new career path.

“SFU has a great atmosphere for research,” she says. “Everyone is so supportive and I’ve learned so much.”

She continues: “Leaving the military was a hard decision to make but I feel incredibly lucky that I can follow my passion here at SFU.”