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A Familiar Face Returns: Amy Wiebe, SFU Math Alum and NSERC-PIMS Postdoctoral Fellow

December 02, 2021
Photo Courtesy of Amy Wiebe

Our department is delighted to welcome back Amy Wiebe (she/her). Amy is an SFU Math alum, having completed her BSc and MSc in 2010 and 2013 respectively. She’s now returned as an NSERC-PIMS postdoctoral fellow, supervised by Tamon Stephen.

“Recently I wanted to understand how I could realize (effectively, draw) a certain 4-dimensional polytope (a higher dimensional version of a convex polyhedron). Just as I was figuring that the existing theory of realizations was not helpful for doing these computations, Amy's Ph.D. thesis came out with a wonderful new approach,” says Tamon. “One of the reasons I'm delighted to have Amy here is that she is someone who develops deep theory while keeping a close connection to the business of doing concrete computations.”

Learn more about Amy’s experiences (and tips for applying for NSERC and PIMS postdoctoral fellowships) below.

1. Your NSERC-PIMS postdoctoral fellowship research will focus on polyhedral optimization. Can you tell us about more about your research? What drew you to this area of mathematics?

My recent research focuses on realization spaces: given some fixed facial or boundary structure for a polytope, what are all the ways you can assign coordinates to the vertices to get a concrete convex object with that structure. I look at different ways to describe the set of all these “realizations” and study its structure. We’ve shown how certain properties of the realization space correspond to properties of the polytope, and how you can determine if a polytope with some desired properties actually exists by exploiting the structure of its realization space. 

[I] love that polyhedral geometry is not just combinatorial, but also has deep connections to optimization and algebra. It’s a very rich subject area with many tools to draw from and many potential applications. 

2. Prior to your NSERC-PIMS fellowship, you did your PhD in University of Washington (UW) and a BMS Dirichlet Postdoctoral Fellowship at Freie Universität Berlin. Can you tell us a little more about these experiences?

It was very enlightening to have the opportunity to not only experience different schools, but two entirely different education systems in countries other than Canada. At UW I felt like I had a chance to “explore” the department by taking different classes, attending seminars, and speaking with professors before committing to working with someone. [My PhD supervisor Rekha Thomas] introduced me to the world of optimization, and I feel like my combinatorial approach to problems meshed really well with her more algebraic influence. She was also a fantastic mentor - I learned a lot about navigating academia from her. 

At Freie Universität, I worked in the Discrete Geometry research group. The group was very welcoming. Outside of regular math activities, we also had academic soft skills seminars, weekly tea, and backyard barbecues in our office garden - when it was possible during the pandemic. About 75% of my postdoc was during the pandemic, so I feel like there were definitely some missed opportunities. But even during these difficult times, I feel lucky that my colleagues were approachable and supportive. 

3. You did your BSc and MSc in Mathematics at SFU.  How did you get interested in mathematics and what were your early mathematical experiences like?

I was always interested in math from a young age. When I was really young I used to make my dad give me math problems to solve at the dinner table. I did math enrichment in elementary school, and joined the math club in high school. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear to me that I was going to end up doing math for a living, but at the time, I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do. I didn’t know anything about math research when I started as an undergraduate at SFU. 

I took courses in many different subjects, and math was just the thing that sort of stuck. I got some great encouragement from Veselin Jungic during his Intro to Analysis course. I learned about USRAs while taking a coding theory class with Jonathan Jedwab, and I remember being super excited to find out that you could actually get paid to do math! I ended up doing a summer research project with him that year, and I think that was the turning point for me when I decided that I wanted to go to grad school and do math research for a living. I spent two more summers doing research as an undergrad. It helped me learn really early that it’s important to work with people whose advising and working style fits with yours, especially when you’re just starting out. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed doing math with other people until I started doing research. 

4. You will be starting as an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Fall 2022. What are you most looking forward to in this upcoming position?

I was always the kid who was excited for the first day of school each year, so I’m pretty excited for the whole new adventure. I’m happy to be joining what feels like a really welcoming department, and getting to live in Kelowna is not a bad perk. But I have to say I’m most looking forward to the potential for new collaborations and the opportunity to create my own research group, where I hope to be able to emulate the supportive and productive environments that I have been lucky to be a part of as a grad student and postdoc. 

5. Do you have any advice for those thinking of applying to the NSERC and PIMS postdoctoral fellowship programs?

Start early. Contact people you’re interested in working with early and get their input on your application. Have other people read your application and give their feedback. Especially for NSERC, it’s great if you can get feedback from someone who has been on the selection committee side of things and knows what a successful application looks like. Also something that is always very hard for me is that you have to write these things with confidence. You’re trying to sell yourself and your work. It’s not just ok, it’s necessary to say why your work is important, what concrete things you will accomplish, and what experience and skills you have that make it believable that you will make progress on the project you are proposing.

Want to connect with Amy? Check out her website here

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