Robert Woodrow

Robert Woodrow

Ph.D. SFU, Mathematics, 1977

Head, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Calgary




I started my Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University in 1971 having obtained an NSERC 1967 Science Scholarship following my undergraduate honours degree at the University of Calgary.   I came to SFU to work with Alistair Lachlan and the strong group of young people at SFU in Mathematical Logic at the time.  Then Alistair had students working in areas from the degrees of unsolvability through universal algebra to model theory.  Alistair went on sabbatical in my second year of study, and I was able to join him at Cambridge and to participate in the Semester on Logic at the Banach Centre in Warsaw Poland for three months in the winter term.   (This was after I had completed preliminary examinations. )

As a research problem we set out to try to show that no complete countable stable theory could have a finite number of countable models (other than 1).  Needless to say, that problem wasn’t toppled then, and a candidate counterexample is still being examined in 2015.   The thesis "Theories with a finite number of countable models and a small language", was defended in the fall of 1976, and the degree awarded in 1977.

The work for the thesis led us to look at the notion of homogeneous structure, and the classification of the countable (ultra)homogeneous undirected graphs followed in 1980 in a paper with Alistair in Transactions of the American Mathematical Society.  

After graduation, faced with a very restricted job market, I joined the ranks of young Ph.D.’s moving across the continent for year-long appointments as sabbatical replacements, visiting assistant professors and so on.  This led to making many lasting relationships with colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Saskatchewan and Dalhousie University.  In 1980 a position came available at the University of Calgary where I have remained.

My research interests have retained a core of model theory of relational structures, but because of the opportunities to interact with colleagues at Calgary, including Eric Milner, Bill Sands and Norbert Sauer, I have contributed to research across a number of areas of Discrete Mathematics.

It is heartening to learn that the classification work that Alistair contributed so much to has recently seen renewed interest because of the deep links between countable homogeneous structures with the Ramsey property, and amenable groups in Topolgoical Dynamics, (thanks to the work of Kechris, Pestov and Todorcevic).

I have always felt it important to try to engage young people in mathematics and have been active with mathematics outreach since my arrival in Calgary.  I have been organizer of the Calgary Junior Mathematics Contest since the early 80’s, and involved with the Provincial contests.  I authored the Olympiad Corner and the Skoliad Corner of Crux Math. for more than a decade.

I served for some time as member and chair of the Education Committee of the CMS, and am currently a member of the Student Committee and Chair of the Canadian Open Math Competition committee.

Service to one’s department and university is also important.  For me this included a long period as Chair of Pure Mathematics in the Department, then to service at the Faculty as Associate Dean (Research) and Vice-Dean and then as Associate Vice-President (Academic) and Deputy Provost.    In 2010 I stepped down from these roles to return to teaching and scholarship.   One’s past doesn’t get away from one, and I find myself winding down my time at the university by taking on a term as Head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

In 2010 I was awarded the Graham Wright Distinguished Service Award of the CMS and the Order of the University of Calgary.   I was appointed to the Campus Alberta Quality Council for a term that will end in 2016.



Why did you choose to go to SFU?   

As an undergraduate student I had become interested in Mathematical Logic and was considering a number of places to go for graduate study.  A professor arranged for a visit by Alistair Lachlan, and I quickly decided that he would be an excellent supervisor.

Where did you spend the most amount of time on campus?

My office, or Alistair’s office in the quadrangle, at least when not being given a final examination by Alistair while on a walk to Burnaby Mountain park.

What is your favorite memory from your time at SFU?

My favorite memories are of the people.  The faculty and my fellow graduate students presented a rich variety of individuals (if not almost stereotypes!).  I also remember dinner parties for 15 that a fellow graduate student (Gena Hahn) and I would cook at his parents’ home in West Vancouver.  Select faculty members and graduate students—by invitation only.


Who was your favorite SFU professor and why?

Alistair Lachlan.  Alistair loves to play devil’s advocate, but one quickly observes that he has very high standards for himself and looks out for the best interest of students.

How has your SFU degree impacted your career?  

The degree opened up the possibility of a career in academia where I continue to interact with scholars from around the world whie having a chance to look to our future—the young people we help form.

What is your favorite SFU snow story?

The day scheduled for the Christmas Party it started to snow.  I had been delegated to drive my old Dodge Dart down the hill to pick up the alcohol.  It was snowing quite heavily on the return, but I made it, (likely because of the weight of boxes of beer, etc. in the trunk of the car).  For some reason I decided to go down the hill again and change clothes.  By the time I started back up for the party, my car would no longer plow through the deepening snow.  So I turned around, parked the car, and took the bus, which, luckily got through.   Needless to say, most people who made it to the party did not go home until the next day.

If you could give advice to students today, what would you tell them?

Many young people seem very fixed on “training for a job”.  I would say "follow your passion to understand and to learn." The skills that you will need will change and have to be relearned anyway, but you will be better as a person for it.

What is the one thing about SFU that must not change?

SFU has always been serious about scholarship while being able to allow for change, accept divergent views, and laugh at itself a little.  It must not lose that spirit of youth and adventure and commitment to provide the best education possible to students from a wide range of backgrounds.