Mirjana Maraš is originally from Montenegro, a small beautiful country in southeast Europe. She moved to the U.K. when she was 16 to attend the United World College of the Atlantic, and then to Canada to study Applied Mathematics at Simon Fraser University. She obtained the Bachelor of Science degree (First Class Honours) in Applied Mathematics in 2007 and a Masters degree in the same field in 2009. She feels very grateful for having her university education fully funded by the SFU Shrum scholarship and graduate fellowships, as well as by research assistantships and the NSERC PGS-M scholarship. This made her journey to Canada possible in the first place, and she is so happy to have studied at a university with such a strong sense of community. After graduating from SFU, Mirjana worked on computational fluid dynamics modeling of tidal turbines at a renewable energy start-up, Blue Energy Canada. She currently works on the Smart Metering and Infrastructure project at BC Hydro, where she is co-developing big data analytics with the goal of detecting topology errors and energy anomalies in the electrical network. She is passionate about making education fun and about inspiring people to reach their greatest potential.
Why did you choose to go to SFU?
It was one of those unpredictable things in life that turned out great! I was 18 years old at the time and was attending a very inspirational high school, United World College of the Atlantic, in Wales, U.K. I was missing my family and home country tremendously, but I was very drawn to seeing more of the world. So, I applied to a few universities in North America, and SFU offered me a place with a full scholarship. I am so grateful for the opportunity to study at SFU and live in a city surrounded by beautiful mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Before moving to Vancouver I knew very little about Canada, and coming to SFU was one of those leaps of faith that felt both right and somewhat nerve wrecking. I am so happy that I made that choice and loved my time at SFU!
Where did you spend the most amount of time on campus?
I was lucky to have spent the first two years of my undergraduate degree living on campus. This means that I have an intimate connection with the Burnaby Mountain micro climate: the mysterious fog and the snow reserved just for SFU, and I technically could have gone to class in PJs and flip flops, though I never did use that wonderful privilege! I spent most of my time with amazing friends in the residences: McTaggart-Cowan Hall, Shell House, and the Townhouses. We were all the studious type, but with a serious fun side. We would study hard when the time was right (think midterms and exams), and spend a lot of time socializing, dancing, discussing our international backgrounds and practicing each other’s mother tongues. We had set up a great reward system, where we would promise each other to make crepes or go dancing after so many hours of hard work, and this worked like a charm. During my Masters studies I spent the most time with the mathematics students and professors in the lovely IRMACS and PIMS spaces that we were given. I loved the community feel of our school and the Math department, and that was the main reason that I picked SFU for my graduate studies.
What is your favorite memory from your time at SFU?
There are many memories that I am so fond of, but if I have to pick one then I will pick the second Christmas at Shell House. I was spending the winter break with my friends who didn’t fly back to their homes in Africa, Europe, and Asia. We made a lovely Christmas dinner which consisted of Senegalese fried rice, probably some nice spicy chicken, and English chocolate pudding. It was a non-traditional Christmas dinner and we were having a great time, giggling and enjoying our freedom. It had not snowed yet that year, and then a blanket of snow covered the campus exactly on Christmas day. This was something that I had only seen in North American movies before, and I couldn’t believe that it was happening in reality! We made snow angels on Christmas day.
Who was your favorite SFU professor and why?
My favourite SFU professor was Dr. David Muraki, who made mathematics come alive with his almost theatrical lectures. He was very passionate and witty, and swiftly filled the blackboards with equations. We really had to pay attention and that seemed natural given the great importance with which he spoke and the speed at which we were moving through the material. He was wise and had a great sense of humour. And most importantly, he was one of the go-to people when it came to making important decisions or getting unstuck in math or maybe even life. I remember having so much more clarity and sense of direction after talking to him. He treated his students with the intention to help them truly learn and make the best decisions. Thank you, Dave!
How has your SFU degree impacted your career?
Majoring in Applied Mathematics at SFU prepared me for almost any scientific or technical job, where the focus is on theory and communication. A great focus of our program was mathematical modeling. This is the idea that mathematics can be used to describe aspects of reality, such as weather patterns for example, and then predict future behaviour. This general approach can be applied to almost anything, including data driven business processes where pattern recognition is very important. I have spent 5 years working in the industry since completing my Masters degree, and while I do not generally work with partial differential equations (this was a big thing at school!), I do get to apply mathematical concepts and provide real business value. I first worked on computational fluid dynamics modeling of tidal turbines, and then on developing big data analytics at BC Hydro.
I feel lucky that I had so many opportunities to explore different career paths and research directions while I was a student. I did three co-op terms at BC Hydro, worked as a research assistant with two SFU professors, did climate modeling research in Montreal, and obtained more research experience on two MITACS funded projects: predicting typical energy use, and modeling of tidal turbines. I also had many opportunities to practice giving presentations during class projects and conferences, and this helped me tremendously in becoming more comfortable with public speaking. I have used this skill at my present job, where I presented our algorithms and the key physics concepts to non-technical audiences. This is something that I want to do more of, as it is incredibly fun!
What is your favorite SFU snow story?
Snow at SFU was like an amazing gift. It happened once or twice a year, and when it did it pretty much meant “free time”. No buses would go up the hill, because winter tires are for people from the East coast, and this meant that classes would be canceled. There was this one particular time when I was under a lot of stress from too much work and I remember waking up in the morning hoping almost desperately that I did not have to hand in any more assignments that day. I checked my phone and there was a text message from SFU Security saying that classes had been canceled due to snow! I felt so happy. We hiked up the hill and went tobogganing on Burnaby Mountain. Some of us had crazy carpets, and others plain garbage bags – anything goes. What could have been a really stressful day turned into so much fun!
If you could give advice to students today, what would you tell them?
Your time at university is precious. It’s marked by limitless possibilities and dreams of all that you could be. Follow your heart, have fun while you are at school, make some wonderful friends, be open to life being one great adventure, and trust yourself to find a path that works best for you. Do make use of all of the great opportunities that SFU offers: co-op terms, exchange programs, clubs, student societies, internships, research and teaching assistantships. This can help you make a contribution and also help you discover more about life and how you want to live it. And always remember that real happiness comes from within, so let that be your guide.
What is the one thing about SFU that must not change?
Something that is very special about SFU is its sense of community and the beauty of the Burnaby Mountain that it is placed upon. There were times when I couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning so I could hike up to school and then meet my math friends and professors at the SFU pub around lunch time. I hope that SFU will take good care of its forest and its small community for many generations to come.