Asian Heritage Month: a profile of Weiran Sun

May 25, 2021

Briefly introduce yourself and your research area.

My name is Weiran Sun. I'm a math professor at Simon Fraser University. I finished my undergraduate studies in China, and my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, College Park in the U.S. After that, I completed a postdoctoral position at the University of Chicago. I moved to Vancouver to work at SFU in 2012.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

In the society where I grew up, the importance of science was emphasized and scientists were highly respected. That naturally drew me to science. When I entered university to study math, I simply enjoyed the environment of the school. I thought, “I want to pursue my career as a mathematician at a university.”

What do you love most about your work?

The procedure of finding answers that no one knows is a very satisfying process. You start to investigate and just go back and forth until you get the right answer. Another thing is an opportunity to get to know a lot of smart people and collaborate with them. For researchers, it's like an extended family.

The teaching part is also interesting. Seeing how young students build up their knowledge and produce things that I did not imagine they would at the beginning is an exciting experience.

What are you proud of?

I’m happy with some of the work I have done, to the extent that I'm proud of them.

What kinds of barriers in your work or studies have you faced?

Communication skills have been the biggest barrier in my career. English is not my first language since I’m from China, and Chinese and English are very different. When I first went to the U.S., I could understand only piece-by-piece. Especially when I was in a group of people having a chat, I didn’t really understand what they were saying and it made me feel very uncomfortable to speak because I was afraid that I might make a mistake. Fortunately, mathematics uses a very small set of vocabulary, but still, the communication part could be an obstacle, because researching isn't the only thing we need to do.

Why are the barriers higher for Asian scientists?

I do think a language barrier plays a major role because in general, Asian languages are very different from English. And another thing is cultural differences. In Asian culture, you should be modest and reserved, but in Western culture, things are more straightforward and you should present yourself in a very positive way. If you're not familiar enough with Western culture, sometimes it's hard to understand what's going on.

What suggestions do you have on how to make academia a diverse and inclusive space?

For Asian people – because of the language and the culture – they are not outspoken compared with their Western peers and that might give people a wrong impression. If you're at the management level and you're too quiet, people might think you are not a good fit. Although Asian people do not speak much, or they are not as fluent in English as others, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have good ideas. They just need a little more time to organize their ideas and present them. I think we should be a bit more patient and consciously provide more opportunities for these people to speak up.