August 20, 2018

The arrival of Caroline Colijn at SFU has been much anticipated by those in the department of Mathematics. Colijn’s appointment as a Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Infection Evolution and Public Health was announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December, 2017. 

Colijn was recruited from Imperial College London in the UK. Her research focuses on connections between mathematics and public health, using data from math, statistics and genomics to understand how pathogens adapt and spread.

Colijn plans to build a research team at SFU and will be teaching Math 495/795 in the fall. She was kind enough to take the time to answer some very important questions.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

That’s a big question! Probably spending time with the people I love, doing things that I love and enjoying places I love.

What is your greatest fear for Canada, the world, or the planet?

The rise of populism combined with what seems like a decrease in our expectation that people who greatly disagree should be able to have meaningful debate and conversation – this is worrying, and so is climate change. I focus on infectious disease in my work and I try to make a positive difference there.

What traits do the most successful students have?

There are so many ways to be successful! But I think many successful students go the extra mile rather than doing the minimum; they have a curiosity about their topic, they think for themselves and they are good communicators.

What traits do the most unsuccessful students have?

The opposite -- only doing the bare minimum, not having a real curiosity about what they are learning (so not asking questions and seeking answers), and not paying attention to how they communicate.

What is your greatest extravagance?

I like really nice meals, but they aren’t necessarily extravagant money-wise.  Now that I’m based in Vancouver I might buy a kayak and a standup paddle board. And I love to travel.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I’d like to be a musical genius.

What is your most treasured possession?

Gifts from treasured friends.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Probably dentists! On a more serious note, having a child or family member seriously ill in a hospital is pretty bad too.

Did you always like mathematics?


Do you have any advice for your 20 year-old self?

Keep taking opportunities to do things that are interesting - you’ll figure out what you want to do.

What is it that you most dislike?

Mayonnaise. Going to the dentist.

What is your greatest regret?

I don’t have a lot of regrets but I wish that I had been geographically closer to my family when my kids were really young. When I was in my 20s I was more shy, and I think I missed some opportunities that way.

What is your impression of Vancouver so far?

Beautiful, of course – love the beaches. Very driving-oriented and physically big compared to London, but it feels like home because I went to UBC.

What was your first job?

Babysitting and summer childcare, then I was a lab tech in physics at UBC on a summer NSERC.

What was the smartest decision you ever made?

Professionally, I think moving into the field I’m in now was great because it is such a good match for my interests and abilities and it’s an exciting field with so many opportunities.

Why do you think so many people have math phobia?

Great question! I think it’s cultural. Think about it: we’d never be OK with politicians announcing that they can barely read, but somehow it’s acceptable to say, in a self-deprecating way, that we “have no head for numbers” or something like that. I also think sometimes people miss something basic in math when they are really young (elementary school or early high school), and then they get by after that by “pattern matching” -- knowing the kinds of questions and what to do, but not always why or what it means. It’s not a comfortable way to work, and at some point it breaks down.


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