Of socks, vacuum-cleaners and the Appalachian trail: an interview with Yasha Berchenko-Kogan

Dear readers,

I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Yasha Berchenko-Kogan, an MIT graduate student in mathematics who became notorious on the Internet for his answer to a question on Quora about what mathematics graduate students do all day.

Yasha and I first met at the MIT Math recital, an annual music concert at which every participant is affiliated with the Math department (Yasha performed a piece on the piano). After this initial meeting we decided to find a time to talk more in detail.

In the interview we talked about a number of things, but the primary theme was explaining mathematical concepts to ourselves and others. A number of new insights came out of the interview, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. The transcript is here, and this is the article Yasha mentioned towards the end of the interview.

Transcript of my interview with Richard Hoshino

Dear readers,

I’m finally completing the transcriptions of the part of my interview series I did in the first 12 months of the blog, by posting the transcript of the very first interview I conducted, the one with Richard Hoshino. It was very inspiring for me to listen to our conversation again while working on this transcription, and I hope it will be equally inspiring for you to read it if you haven’t listened to the interview yet, or even if you already have. Enjoy and stay tuned for my next post, tentatively entitled “What cats can teach us about math”.

MP: Richard, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me again and I would like to start by asking you about the big picture. In your 2006 presentation at the CUMC [Canadian Undergraduate Mathematics Conference] at McGill you said that your career goal was to search for diverse opportunities to combine mathematics with public policy, and so I was wondering how your career goal has changed since then.

RH: Well, thank you Leonid and it’s so nice that we can touch base after so many years and you know when I last met you this was back in 2006, so over six years ago, I feel like I had too narrow a view and I realize that to say that my goal is to use math to influence public policy was too narrow because I realize now that I had skills beyond mathematics and I can apply them to causes that are more broad than public policy. And just to give you a couple of really quick examples, I used to work for the Canada Border Service Agency where in my last couple of years I worked for an exciting project that led to reduced waiting time at international airports. This would be the equivalent of folks like you and me traveling to Canada from abroad and clearing customs and before we would be waiting forty-five minutes or an hour, hour and a half, two hours, and now we typically wait about five, ten, fifteen minutes. And it was exciting because it involved not math but statistics, areas of math that I didn’t understand. I love it because reducing waiting lines at a customs queue is “not really policy” but I am grateful for it every time I come back to Canada because I can wait about half an hour less than I used to. And just to give another quick example, I live in Japan right now where we experienced the worst natural disaster in world’s history about a year and half ago. And after this tragic earthquake I felt so powerless and so desperate to want to help especially seeing the pictures of the Tsunami and seeing the fallouts from the nuclear radiation and so many people whose lives were changed forever and I found a Christian Relief Organization that did earthquake relief especially in the heart of key areas and what I ended up doing with this non-profit was building and working with an IT specialist to help her build a computer database to keep track of volunteers and I had a very simple role where I used the database to schedule volunteers and document for other volunteers how to use this database to keep track of what we were doing and reduce duplication of work. And I want to share that because it didn’t really have to do with mathematics or public policy but I realized that in my big picture and I feel this tremendous yearning to make a contribution that has an impact in the world. And I’ll quote this section by quoting a guy named John Wesley. This was from 200, 300 years ago. And this has kind of been my life motto: Do all the good you can by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, in all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can. And I think that’s kind of my big picture of where I want to go with the rest of my life.

MP: Oh wow OK that sounds much broader than the original certainly, and it’s great that you’ve got these opportunities to contribute in those ways and so I guess going back to your presentation again for me, one of the big takeaways from that was that you really wanted to see life as a service and that actually resonated quite a bit with me and certainly, you’ve been consciously seeking out opportunities for serving others but I guess another question that I had is what might be some of the unexpected ways in which you’ve put your mathematical and perhaps other skills to use?

RH: Sure, so I’m part of the Canadian Mathematical Society and every month or so they release a bulletin called the Notices or Notes of the Canadian Math Society and so the December edition came out this morning and so I wrote a two page article in that and it was based on a media company producing a TV game show where they needed help to schedule the contestants to reduce fatigue. It was an obstacle course, medieval-themed show called Spatalot which was in Canada, Australia, and Britain. A huge hit in all three countries among the teenagers and it was really interesting because it involved an area of math called graph theory which is what I did my PhD in, yet even though my PhD thesis was very theoretical, it was so interesting because I can apply some ideas for that in all the real-life problems for this game show that was seen by thousands and thousands of people in three countries and it was exciting because I could use my passion for graph theory and scheduling to help the executive producer of the game show create a schedule that was exactly what he was looking for to reduce rest and boredom among the contestants competing on his game show.

MP: Wow, that sounds fantastic.

RH: And Leonid, I’ll send you the link if you’re interested.

MP: Absolutely, that would be great and I’ll put a link to it when I post the interview. Thanks and let’s change gears a little bit and talk about one of the big topics I’m trying to address in the blog which is the negative stereotypes we have, at least in North American society, about mathematicians. So you’ve spent the last few years living in Japan and I’m wondering what your experience has been in dealing with these stereotypes and also if you notice substantial differences in people’s attitudes towards math between Canada and Japan?

RH: Sure, well let me start with Canada because I have more familiarity with the Canadian system. We have a tremendous stereotype among the Canadian public that mathematics can only be done by boys, nerds, and Asians. In other words, people like myself. But I believe so strongly that with inspired mentorship anyone can succeed in math and develop the confidence and creativity and problem-solving skills and critical-thinking skills so essential in life. A good friend of mine, a mentor named John Mighton, he’s a professor at University of Toronto who is the pioneer of the JUMP, Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigy Program and JUMP has been a tremendous success, originally started with low-income kids in Toronto and now there are one hundred thousand students across Canada from grade one to grade eight working on this program that takes the subject of math and instead of pounding kids with formulas to memorize and equations/techniques to regurgitate, this program looks at problem-solving in a holistic way, breaking problems into small parts and empowering students to develop their creativity and confidence skills and also a will to discover patterns for themselves and take ownership of the subject, and I feel like as we teach in a more creative and empowering way, we can break these stereotypes. This reminds me of an experience in Nova Scotia where I did my graduate school work where I started and founded the Nova Scotia Math League, a Saturday morning outreach program now in its 9th or 10th year involving thousands of students from the entire province in every school board and what I loved about this was that when I started this back in 2003 or 2004, we had about 40% girls and why this was so exciting for me was because we got to share math in a different way. Math wasn’t about speed and symbols. It wasn’t about manipulating algebraic symbols and memorizing formulas. What we ended up doing was presenting math in a really fun and recreational way, in a cooperative team-based event and also instead of focusing on the symbols of mathematics we focused on the visual or linguistic or conceptual types of recreational math problems that really appealed to a wide audience and through this program females in the various schools got to meet other females and realize hey, I’m not the only one who enjoys math! And this created a community of learners and I think by having outreach programs and teaching math in a very innovative way we can actually break some of these stereotypes. And I have seen some of that in Japan as well and in Canada those are the ways we can provide for students in a way that promotes the subject and encourages them to pursue further learning in math.

MP: That sounds fabulous actually. I am really impressed with the initiative that you described and I think that’s a very good point, actually, that as long as we present things in a different way, in an engaging and fun way, we are going to get a lot more people interested in math of all backgrounds and not necessarily those who are traditionally thought of as being perhaps good or predisposed for mathematics. So that’s definitely really inspiring and we definitely need more of these kinds of initiatives like the Saturday Math League and the JUMP program that you described. So another question that I wanted to ask about a related topic has to do with the attitude that people have towards mathematics. There has been some discussion in the press recently that this attitude is different between the East and the West, broadly speaking, and especially because mathematics can be seen as such a challenging subject. I guess I was wondering whether you’ve seen any differences in the way that Japanese and Canadian mathematicians approach the subject.

RH: Sure and maybe now I can answer the question I didn’t answer in the last part about Japan. So, you know, one of the things I have noticed about living in Japan for the last three years is Japan has realized, the Japanese educational system realizes, the importance of failing and struggling as a part of the learning process and subsequent potential for eventual success and this is engrained. This notion of perseverance and following through in the face of difficult challenges, this is engrained in Japanese culture. And for me having Japanese parents and I did a math program as a kid in Canada called Kumon, and this program, Kumon, focused on the importance of math, that it wasn’t good enough to get eighty percent or ninety percent or even ninety five percent. The way Kumon math program worked was that if you didn’t one hundred percent you couldn’t move on to the next worksheet, you couldn’t move on to the next level. And I really get that sense living here in Japan that the goal of every activity, even hobbies, is having an uncompromising commitment to excellence, the goal is mastery rather than just getting by and just doing the path of least resistance to getting as much as you can, enough so you can go on. And I feel like in Canada, sometimes I feel like we try really hard not to discourage young people and by having that as the frame of reference we end up creating a watered-down math curriculum where it’s all about covering the material in a superficial way rather than uncovering the material in a very deep way where we don’t do enough to encourage students to take ownership of the material and we try so hard to make math “interesting” even though math is already more interesting than any of us can ever imagine and so for me when I start my new career as a math professor back in Canada just in a couple of months I’ll have my students actually doing mathematics, in other words posing their own problems, making their own conjectures, trying something and feeling it, experiencing the despair of being stuck as well as the euphoria of then seeing the key insight and ensuring that they have periods of both creative frustration and creative breakthroughs. I feel like by creating a positive environment where students experience failure puts them in a position where they can eventually succeed. And I feel that, that’s something Japan does quite well and something that Canada can do better.

MP: OK, that sounds great actually. Yeah, I think I agree with the point that letting people fail sort of early on and as part of the process and then making sure that they actually get to the point where they master the material is a more rational approach then sort of just getting by. So, continuing on that topic of education, which is a very interesting topic to me both for the blog and personally, so you just said that you’re going to go back to Canada in a couple of months and start a career as a mathematics teacher so the university that you’re going to be doing that at is Quest University and from what I understand it has a very different model of teaching and learning, so I was wondering if you could tell me more about the model and also what you think makes it more attractive than the traditional model?

RH: Sure, well let me first start, Leonid, by talking about the traditional model and why that was absolutely not the place I wanted to work in, in the future. And so I went to a very traditional university, one of the top universities in Canada for math and I absolutely absolutely hated it, and I found that my professors squashed my curiosity and passion by monotonously lecturing at us to the paradigm viewing information transfer as the only method of learning rather than for example, speaking with energy and passion or incorporating multiple teaching strategies or empowering us to construct and create knowledge for ourselves and I found that my love and enthusiasm for math, even though I was a math Olympian who had done extremely well in high school, I found that my love and enthusiasm for math flattened and I was disempowered by so many professors who treated learning and teaching as a chore on how we could regurgitate theorems and memorize proofs and whose commitment to excellence and research did not extend to inspiring undergraduates to prepare them to be leaders of tomorrow. In other words, we have an educational system that essentially says that research is the only important thing and we have for example, a program called the Canada Research Chairs, where the bonus of being considered a star researcher is that as a bonus we have less teaching. There’s perhaps a reason why we use words like teaching load, research opportunity; even just the semantics of the words we use. So I found that traditional universities have tenure, for example, all based on the number of publications, the amount of research grants, money that you can bring in and I realize that having gone through a traditional university for my undergraduate and my graduate degree that I couldn’t flourish in that system because I am more passionate and have always been more passionate about teaching, administration, service, and outreach more than research. And then just about a year ago I learned of this place called Quest University Canada in British Columbia. I never knew that this place existed. It’s a startup university, that started five years ago, very recently, and just had their first graduating class in April 2011, just a year ago. As I learned about this university and saw their job posting I was shocked that their educational philosophy was not providing the right answers but empowering students to ask insightful questions, this really spoke to me because in my own development as a mathematician I have learned that the best mathematics comes not from me getting the right answer but by me posing the right question and the professors at this university, they’re part of the learning process, they are called tutors rather than professors. Every single person from the president to every student goes by their first name, and learning comes from a community rather than a hierarchical top-down approach. And so what I enjoyed about this university as I learned more, I found myself getting so excited and was so thrilled to be hired by this university. So at Quest all the classes are seminar-style, less than twenty students. They have a block plan style of learning in which students focus on just one subject at a time for a month. So for example, you and I would have taken five classes during a fifteen week period during our undergrad whereas at Quest students take one class at a time and do just that one class for there and half weeks. So it’s pretty much the same number of contact hours. But a block type system enables for both breadth and depth and pedagogically it’s so much better for empowerment, for retention, for achieving mastery of a subject. And what I loved about Quest especially was that each student at the end of their second year comes up with a unique question that directs the final two years of their work. In other words, the student can decide at the end of two years, this is what I want to study and then with their tutors, taking classes and doing their own independent studies, they get to own the material and create a final project that they work on over two years, where at the end they really become the expert at the subject because it’s their question. It’s not their professor’s answer, it started with them, with their question and it provides them with a much deeper and more meaningful learning experience. And this contrasts with a professor at the university that I went to for my undergrad. We had to sit next to each other at a dinner table a year ago and this gentleman told me he felt I was very naïve in thinking of education in this way because in his opinion it’s important for students, for young people in undergraduate and Master’s to know “content” before proceeding with difficult problem sets. According to this professor students need to be fed information for the first let’s say seven or eight years of their secondary education before they’re in a position where they can start developing their own mathematics, and I absolutely, completely disagree with that and feel that students, by providing them with the opportunity to own their own education from the outset, develop into much more mature and more developed mathematicians, more importantly critical thinkers, problem solvers, by availing themselves of the opportunity to take their own question and roll with it, right from the get go, right from their undergraduate experience, and so that’s what attracted me to Quest. They get this. And I am so excited to start there in February.

MP: Oh wow, that sounds extremely exciting. This is just a quick follow up question on that. It sounds like the model is quite different but are there some things that are still carried over from the traditional model, so for instance, are there such things are majors and minors?

RH: So no majors and minors, all students at the small liberal arts university, they just have a Bachelor of Arts and Science. So every single student when they graduate they receive a single degree called a Bachelor of Arts and Science. McMaster’s is the only other university in Canada that I know to offer this degree, so students have a rigorous foundation program where for the first two years they take a breadth of courses in both the arts and sciences and their last two years they can come up with their own question that combines elements of the arts and the sciences and so they just get this one combined degree, and another thing that is unique about this university is there is no tenure so to my knowledge, it’s the only university in North America that doesn’t worry about tenure where every year, every two years, professors are evaluated on their performance, heavy commitment to teaching and it’s really exciting because having a system where there is no tenure, It forces and encourages and empowers the tutors to be very innovative and creates a system of accountability where the tutors that are effective and good at their jobs get to keep their jobs and I feel that this is a much better approach than many universities, for example in the public sector where I work poor performance is not dealt with and this ends up hurting the students and they’re not able to get the education that they paid for.

MP: Absolutely. Great, well another question about Quest and maybe your quests as a tutor there which is that, you know, you’re about to start teaching your first course and you’re actually writing a novel that you plan to use as a textbook for that course, and so in my personal experience, I have always found that the stories behind the mathematics is what really fascinated me. Like you said that’s what really engages you; it’s not so much the covering of the content but the uncovering of the content, and so I guess the question that I wanted to ask you is that, do you actually think that a fictional novel like your novel or another novel could be a better source for learning math than a textbook?

RH: Yeah, absolutely. Just to provide some context for this, in March 2010 after my wife, Karen, landed her dream job teaching English at the University here in Japan, I ended up quitting my job with the Canadian government and moved to japan as an unemployed househusband and with no clarity of what I was going to do here in Japan I ended up getting all these ideas and realized that I wanted to write a book about math but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a textbook. I knew it was going to be something with problem solving and one day I just had this idea that I should write a novel instead and I ended up writing or have begun to write and nearly completed a novel of a fictional Nova Scotia teenager who commits herself to the crazy and unrealistic goal of representing her country at the Math Olympiad and from that decision discovers Math and really enjoys it. In some ways a couple of years ago, I read Sophie’s World, a fascinating book dealing with Philosophy and I felt that the author did an amazing job of making Philosophy accessible and enjoyable, and it was so much more interesting to read Sophie’s World, in fact I felt that I learned more philosophy from reading this book than the thick textbook that I read during my first year philosophy course during my undergrad, and I felt like by writing a novel instead of a thick textbook, sharing beautiful mathematics with the general public through the medium of a novel I feel like I can reveal the surprising and unexpected applications of the math in everything in this world, in a very big picture way, so instead of a problem-solving book on techniques and ideas – there are plenty of them out there – by sharing a larger story could mean that our dreams are worth pursuing, no matter how unrealistic they are because they motivate us to reach our fullest potential by making contributions to society. And then if we pursue our dreams we inspire others to achieve theirs. If by writing a math book where that’s the main message I feel like it would reach more readers and that’s why I ended up choosing for a novel instead of a textbook, and I’m so excited to use this in my problem-solving course next year.

MP: Definitely, and so I think that sounds great and I really hope that this book ends up being successful at reaching a wide audience as I am sure you hope for too. My question then is, I guess, as far as I understand you haven’t’ done much creative writing before this so you probably have been facing a lot of the same challenges when you started doing this that I’m having right now with the blog and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of these challenges and also how you managed to overcome them?

RH: Sure, well so I am a first-time author with no background or experience in creative writing. I didn’t take a single English course during my undergraduate. So the last English course I took was in grade 12 so that would be sixteen years ago, and so I ended up publishing my entire manuscript online and invited people to comment on the manuscript providing feedback and what’s been really exciting about this, sharing my work with hundreds of people and posting it on various websites and forums, I have received valuable, tremendously helpful comments from hundreds of people in many different countries. I have been able to take their advice, from students, male and female, to professors, to parents. I have been able to take comments and then create a better book, so not just fixing typos but really helping me with the story and developing characters and helping me explain certain things in a much more meaningful or clear, concise way. I feel that because of them the final product is going to be so much better and I feel especially for me, as a first-time author, if I didn’t do this and waited until the final product, or I had a final product before sharing it, it would have been nowhere near as effective as what I have been able to do now.

MP: Absolutely, that sounds terrific. It reminds me actually of the product development process where, you know, you always hear that it’s a good idea to show your prototypes early to potential customers and so you don’t end up developing something that nobody ends up using and I think the approach that you’ve taken is really great and I wonder if perhaps some of these ideas are things that I should also adopt for my blog. Well, anyway I also wanted to get back to this creativity idea and talk a little bit about another area of creativity, which is music. I saw among a dozen of your papers there’s one in particular that deals with an application to music and I’m pretty sure a lot of the readers of this blog have an interest in music so I was wondering if you could maybe give us a quick summary of what the application is and also what inspired you to look into this question?

RH: Sure, I have a fabulous PhD supervisor named Jason Brown at Dalhousie, and Jason became very famous a few years back for applying his mathematical talent to music, combining his two biggest passions, and about forty years ago there was a very famous song by the Beatles called a Hard Day’s Night and it starts with a very famous opening chord that lasts about three seconds and nobody could understand or nobody could reproduce this, so the sheet music that the Beatles eventually released didn’t match up to the actual song, no one could reproduce that song and Jason, using some fabulous techniques in math called Fourier analysis, was able to deduce that famous opening chord involved the producer playing a certain sequence of notes on a piano and if you take that combination of notes on a piano and combine it with a Paul McCartney playing notes on his guitar etc. it actually makes the sound absolutely perfect and then you can reproduce that chord exactly and he ended up getting a lot of media attention for this; in fact he wrote an amazing book that I’ll shamelessly plug called, ‘Our Days are Numbered: How Mathematics Orders our Lives’ and in this book Jason talks about the application and the connection of math to music, and so that’s where the interest came in that there is a connection between these two subjects. I have a very very good friend named Sachiko Nakajima who lives in Japan. She was the first and currently the only female Olympian who’s ever represented Japan and what she learned, as passionate as she was about math, her real passion was music and so she ended up giving up a potential career as a math professor, realizing that there was something that she wanted to do more and that was to become a professional jazz musician and that’s what she ended up doing. It’s really exciting to see the connections between math and music and seeing how these two subjects are intricately connected and for me to have had the opportunity to be mentored by my PhD advisor, who is an expert in both. So that was an awesome experience.

MP: Absolutely, that sounds fantastic. And so another, different area of application. I was very pleasantly surprised to see an article in the Japan Times recently featuring your work. This is the work that you have done scheduling the Japanese Baseball League. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what motivated you to look into that and also what were the differences between the theory that you must have used for analyzing the problem and how it actually got resolved in practice.

RH: Sure, well I did my PhD in graph theory, writing a two hundred and sixty page thesis on a very technical problem which had multiple sub-problems, a very pure theoretical type of math, and so when I came to Japan and eventually landed a position doing research with a famous graph theory professor at the National Institute of Informatics in Tokyo, I ended up working on some very difficult theoretical graph theory problem and I was unable to solve it and one day, just in a state of tremendous discouragement, riding the train I ended up picking up the schedule for the Chiba Marine Baseball Team, this is the local baseball team where I live, one of the twelve professional baseball teams in Japan. And as I was looking at the schedule I noticed that there were tremendous inefficiencies; this team, instead of playing multiple games where the opponents were located geographically close to one another, it was an extremely inefficient schedule and I realized that using techniques in graph theory, I had a flash of insight that perhaps there are techniques that can be done by taking a scheduling problem and converting it into graph theory. I had a big sense of how that could be done. And I was inspired by that because while I was looking at the schedule I was also on my cell phone and every Japanese person on their cell phone has a computer program that tells them how to get from one train station to the other in the shortest amount of time and this is a very simple application of graph theory called the shortest path algorithm and I had this idea that I could model this difficult baseball scheduling problem as a shortest path problem by figuring out the shortest travel distance from the start of the season to the end of the season. It took me a while to work out the details, but eventually I was able to do that and I have become an expert in scheduling theory by combining it with graph theory just in the last couple of years. After writing multiple research papers and presenting them at conferences I realized that wasn’t enough because why I was motivated to do this project in the first place was to make an impact for the Japanese baseball league where we showed theoretically that we can reduce the total travel distance by 25%, that is almost 70,000 kilometers, four trips around the world, that’s huge. Currently the baseball league travels 280,000 kilometers so that’s four trips around the world so we could show that we could cut that by a quarter. We were in a small island country. We could reduce the total travel distance by 70,000 kilometers and that represents an enormous impact in terms of cost saving, time saving, energy reduction, greenhouse gas emissions cut, and especially after our tragic earthquake last year I wanted to do something specific to help the country that I live in by applying my skills in math and so I worked really hard to get a meeting with the Japanese baseball league. It took almost a year to get a meeting but once I did they were astonished that what they have been doing manually, a six week process done by hand, can be done in four minutes using some techniques in graph theory and applying a computer software program to figure out the optimal combination, so once we actually met with the Japanese baseball league we learned that there were various constraints that we didn’t know, for example, a balance in weekday and weekend games, ensuring certain constraints that were made for balancing between the various teams, so once we were able to put that into our model we were able to develop theoretical techniques and then once we combined it with the actual information of when certain stadiums were unavailable, we were able to propose some schedule that made things much better leading to reduced travel, cost, as well as greenhouse gas emission reduction.

MP: Fantastic.

RH: And so we got part of our schedule implemented for the 2013 season but our hope is to develop the full schedule for the 2014 season and beyond. All of the intellectual work has already been done and it’s just a matter of each year updating when certain stadiums aren’t available, when certain teams should play against each other to maximize revenue and once we get that, we can generate schedules in four minutes instead of six weeks.

MP: Right, that sounds like a tremendous saving overall and definitely a win-win solution for everyone involved, and it’s really exciting that it actually got at least partly adopted into the actual scheduling. Hopefully, next year and the years after it’ll actually be used as the main program for creating that schedule. So that being said I also wanted to go a little bit back in time, to your time in Canada before you moved to Japan; as you told us you worked for the Canada Border Services Agency so my question is, what was it actually like to work for the government after spending most of your career in academia? Was it the case that you had an important contribution to make, did politics get in the way, were you able to publish work, and did it actually end up making a practical impact? I guess you said that the waiting time in airports has been reduced so that sounds like there was definitely a practical impact, so maybe you can address some of the other questions.

RH: So yeah, I ended up working for the Canada Border Services Agency hired under a new recruitment initiative by the Government of Canada called the Recruitment of Policy Leaders. And it was exciting that through this program I was the first mathematician in a 13,000-person agency and it was so exciting because the president, what they called the deputy minister, of the Canada Border Services Agency, he was a meteorologist specializing in weather prediction and that was how he started his public service career and he was shocked that the mathematical models did a better job of predicting weather than everything he had done, through years of training and education. And what he realized was when his expertise as meteorologist would combine with mathematical modeling, better results were produced. Weather prediction is one of the best in terms of forecasting, the science and the mathematics of weather prediction and forecasting is so strong, so when this man became the deputy minister of the Canada Border Services Agency he wanted to hire a mathematician to take those ideas and combine with the ideas of the local customs officers to create a more efficient and a more secure border. It was exciting, and for a period of four years I got to develop a new risk-scoring algorithm for marine cargo containers coming in to Canada, develop a new system for biometrics for passenger identification of iris scans using techniques in probability theory and then also reduce wait times at border crossings using some statistical modeling, some queueing theory and integer programming and work on a whole bunch of small side projects as well. That was so exciting, and yes, working in the public service there were some tremendous inefficiencies but there was this tremendous joy that what you worked on, although the process was extremely frustrating, to know that what you were doing was making an impact for the entire country was a tremendous joy, something that a lot of mathematicians have never had the joy of experiencing, to know that what you do has a direct impact in your country on society as a whole. That was tremendously, tremendously exciting, but more importantly, during those four years at the Canada Border Services Agency I ended up hiring fifteen people, some as students and others as full-time employees, and together, we ended up building a math team, a team that still exists today, so one mathematician now became a large team. During these four years I got to supervise fifteen people, many of whom have Master’s degrees in statistics or math. What we have been able to do is change the culture of the agency in a very short amount of time from one that was all based on local knowledge and “I have thirty to forty years of experience as a customs service officer therefore I know how to do security” to a more statistical or evidence-based approach that looks at analysis of data so that we can produce more efficient and more effective methods for improving our national security and economic efficiency. In many ways what we’ve been doing has been Moneyball, not just Moneyball in the context of using evidence-based statistics to evaluate baseball players, taking that type of approach to change a culture of an extremely risk-averse, change-averse government agency and bring it into the twenty-first century using some very powerful and sophisticated ideas in statistics and math.

MP: Yeah, that’s extremely exciting. I’m actually going to make a quick plug hearing you speak about an evidence-based approach versus relying exclusively on people’s domain expertise. Not the following week, but the week after that I’m actually going to talk in a blog post about Nate Silver and his statistical predictions for the US elections and how he managed to predict things way more accurately than people with a tremendous amount of experience and understanding of politics but with very little knowledge of mathematics and statistics; that’s definitely something that we’ll explore, that topic, a little bit more. I think in general the power of math is that we actually can integrate both the domain knowledge that people have as well as the evidence from other sources in a single predictive model, so that should be exciting. Now I actually want to switch gears a little bit, and I want to ask you how you would describe the research area that you’re working in to somebody who is not a mathematician, and in particular, would you classify it as pure or applied mathematics?

RH: Sure, I think of myself as a hybrid mathematician, in other words, perhaps my area of math nowadays is called operations research, where I look at applied problems – whether it’s reducing border wait times or cutting carbon emissions for a professional baseball league – taking real-world applied problems and trying to model them into the language of mathematics, and using techniques in pure math to solve them to develop techniques and ideas and theories, but then I am always driven by a real problem, and this very much models my own approach to teaching called problems-based learning, where by providing students with meaningful, contextually-rich problems, and having students discover the techniques and theories motivated by the desire to solve that problem leads to a lot of great ideas, so this is the type of math I do as a researcher. This is how I approach research math as well and I think of myself as both a pure and applied mathematician – motivated by the application, but developing the theoretical, and generalizing ideas to develop theories, and so I’m kind of a mix between the two.

MP: OK, that sounds great, would it be fair to say then that you are just going to use whatever tools are necessary, whether they are tools from pure or an applied mathematics and that you’re really interested in solving the problem at hand?

RH: Absolutely, absolutely. Fantastic! And this is exciting, actually, because then I get to learn more math than speaking to this one narrow research area for four years. And by being motivated to work on a real problem, it structures me to learn math in a way that I’m not aware of, and that enables me to expand my own breadth of knowledge and depth of knowledge and therefore, make a bigger contribution to society.

MP: Absolutely, yeah that sounds great! Another question I wanted to ask you is going back to this idea of engagement with society. It clearly has been a guiding principle behind your career so far and I am sure it’ll continue to do so. Would you feel that – maybe this is not a fair question, necessarily, but I’m still going to ask it – would you feel that it’s the research you do or it’s the teaching that you do that has a larger impact on society?

RH: I think the question itself involves, in some ways you’re comparing apples and oranges, I feel like absolutely, both are important, but I’d definitely be a worse teacher if I didn’t do any research, and vice versa that I’d be a worse researcher if I didn’t do any teaching and so I feel, Leonid, through teaching I can affect people whereas through research I can affect organizations and systems, so through the teaching that I do be able to challenge and then inspire one student at a time as a tremendous blessing and a tremendous privilege and through my research I can tackle very difficult problems and actually compose solutions that lead to measurable and meaningful change in ultra-conservative baseball leagues in Japan or slow-to-change government agencies in Canada. It’s really exciting to know what we’re able to do, and I can take the passion that I have for mathematics for research and teaching and live a life filled with passion and purpose by being able to do both research and teaching.

MP: Definitely, I think that’s a great way of addressing a tricky question. I think I definitely agree with you that there are different kinds of impact, that this is not something that you can make a fair comparison with. You don’t have to choose one or the other because you’re able to integrate both, which is great. And so let’s go back to the first question, and this is actually going to be our last question for the conversation because we’re already getting close to an hour and it’s been really fantastic having this discussion. So the question I wanted to ask you about is, what would you advise to somebody who is you know, let’s say a young person is considering a career in mathematics but doesn’t have the confidence to know that they’re actually good enough for it, or committed enough to it, and are kind of at a crossroads, what would you say to a person like that?

RH: Sure, thank you Leonid. This is a great question. When I was in grade seven I wrote my very first math contest and I remember feeling so discouraged because I liked math, I enjoyed learning the subject but I ended up coming twenty fourth in my very first math contest, way back in grade seven. Now this was twenty fourth in Canada, it wasn’t twenty fourth in my province, it was twenty fourth in my class and I remember feeling so discouraged because I liked the subject, I just didn’t know how to do problem-solving. And as I got better and better and better, my results slowly improved to the point where five years later I was one of the top six in the country, and I share this story because it’s not about how good you are at the beginning or “how smart you are”, but if one has an excitement for mathematics and one feels the energy from doing the subject and appreciates the beauty in the subject then and by combining that with an ability to persevere through difficult struggles and failure, then by having that passion for the subject as well as persevere, then that means that person is good enough and is committed enough and will therefore succeed. In fact I can end by sharing a quote from a guy who wanted to play professional basketball but wasn’t very good. He ended up being cut from his high school basketball team and what he did was tried a bit harder, he just barely made the team the following year and the way he got so good was by being the last person to leave practice every day, the first person to arrive at practice. By simply having more desire than anybody else because he loved the sport and had the perseverance to see things through, through times of failure and disappointment. Anyway this guy ended up winning a scholarship to college, ended up being drafted in the NBA and when he retired, arguably became the greatest player in basketball history. So let me end with this quote from Michael Jordan who really was cut from his high school basketball team. He said this, “I have missed more than nine thousand shots in my career, I have lost almost three hundred games, twenty-six times I was trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed, I have failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed” and I feel that if I close with that, to encourage young people in particular, that failure and disappointment is a natural part of the process of doing and learning mathematics, but if one is able to persevere through those difficult times and combine it with a passion for the subject, that combination of perseverance and passion will lead to a life of tremendous purpose and one that involves making a tremendous impact on society.

MP: Well, that’s a fabulous story! Thank you so much for sharing it, Richard, and thank you so much, once again, for joining me on this interview, the first interview of our series. We’ll definitely have to stay tuned and stay updated on how things go for you at Quest and I’m also really excited about your novel and all the other developments. So thanks again, and we’ll hope to hear from you again soon.

RH: Yeah, you bet, Leonid, thank you so much. I am so glad we were able to do this and great to hear your voice again after so many years.

MP: Definitely, same here, thanks a lot.

RH: You’re welcome, thank you so much, and take care. Bye.

MP: Thank you, bye-bye.