Dr. Ian Goulden

Q: You are entering your 41st year at the University of Waterloo, and now are the Dean of Mathematics. That is an incredibly impressive career by any standard - and made more so by the fact it is with a single organization. What attracted you to U of W as an undergrad, and what's kept you here your entire career?

A: Well, I've always thought math was cool, so that initially attracted me to a career in this area. The Waterloo faculty back at that time had a junior math contest that originally caught my attention when I was in high school, and Waterloo had a reputation even back then of being a great place to do math. My dad was a chemical engineer who had always had a passion for math, and had coop students in his lab even back in the 70's so there was a lot of enthusiasm about U of W at home. My dad's advice to me was to do something I loved. I loved math, so that led me here.

I ended up staying because U of W happened to have one of the best departments in the world and some of the very best people in the world in my area, which is combinatorics. Then in the 1980s, the Canadian Government began funding new faculty positions through NSERC, and I was fortunate to be one of the first to be appointed to faculty under that program. And I've been here ever since.

Q: The Mathematics program has changed greatly since you arrived at the University as an undergrad in the 1970s. Talk to me about the changes you've seen in your career here, and also, some of the things that have remained constant over that time.

A: Has it ever. When I first came here in 1972, Waterloo was highly regarded for its Wat4 and Wat5 Fortran compilers that actually allowed you to debug. For a student, I can assure you, this was very helpful. But beyond that there was no real computer industry. The notion of start-ups, and of people making their career in information technology was simply unheard of. We were taking courses in assembly language and machine language and carrying around shoeboxes full of punch cards. My colleagues from computer science in the early 1970s eventually ended up going on to work for IBM, or to run their own companies, but that wasn't at all on the radar screen at the time. When I was a kid in school, you went into math to be a math teacher, or an actuary. U of W still has one of the biggest actuarial science groups in the world, but today our computer science group is equally significant and recognized.

Today, our students are as likely to go out and build Web based applications for software companies, or high speed trading applications for banks, as they are to practice as an actuary.

Q: This issue of Watch is build around the concept of Design Thinking. Tell me how this form of thinking plays out among U of W Mathematics faculty and students?

We don't run our syllabus around design, or any portion of our faculty around an integrated course packages model. We certainly have courses where the output is a big project. We also encourage the students like crazy to get involved in programs such as The Next 36. And a lot of our students are living in the Velocity Residence, and doing start ups on the side. But in terms of a formal design thinking approach, I'm not sure with 2,000 or more students in computer science and more in software engineering, and with 75 professors, we are capable of handling such labor intensive programs. The dominant culture within mathematics tends to be a bit more introspective.

That said, we are increasingly implementing programs that bring a more multi-disciplinary, collaborative flavor to the mathematics program. Our double BMath and BBA program with Laurier University is now in its 12th year and is in my opinion one of our most elite programs. It also has a substantial number of students - over 100 a year. Students in this program simply blow out of the water all the stereotypes that surround mathematics. They are exceptionally strong in solving formulas and in a business boardroom, and command significant respect in the business world. We've recently initiated another double degree program - a BCS and BBA that we want to see reach the same level of success. We also run joint programs with the accounting school. With more than 6,000 under grads, we can't produce students who are cookie cutter identical. We have students in classical actuarial science; we have accounting students; we have people with a specialization in financial management and others in software engineering. We are producing lot of different versions of students with strong mathematical skills. And every one of them is adept at problem solving.

Q: Why are problem-solving skills so essential to today's graduates, and why do you think U of W students excel in this capability?

The world is changing incredibly fast. Technology today has maybe a two year shelf life. So to train people in a specific technology or do to a fixed thing just doesn't make sense in today's world. Our students need to graduate with good solid problem solving skills on multiple levels. They need to be able to solve formulas. They need to be able to communicate, and adapt as the environment around them changes. These double degree programs in particular are equipping our students with a solid ability to problem solve in a variety of ways. So I think we're doing a good job with the students in helping them develop these skills. But I also think the trick is to get really smart students, and then bring them together and challenge them. Then watch as they rise to the occasion.

Q: You are now two and a half years into your five-year term of office as Dean of Math. What are your goals for your term, and what legacy do you hope to leave behind?

I don't have a personal legacy, but I would like to see the University of Waterloo's mathematics program really keep the quality of what we do front and centre, and ensure U of W is regarded as one of the very best schools worldwide for mathematics. We need to be a special place in the world that attracts very special people. We need to attend international competitions such as the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, and the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. When a team participates and brings home a gold or silver from these competitions it matters. People around the world take notice. We need to continue to attract the really special people to our University. Just as business competes globally for talent, we as an education institution have to compete to attract the best and the brightest - we can't fall behind in this regard. So through funding from the Lazaridis family, we are instituting full scholarships targeting medal winners of mathematics competitions such as the International Math Olympiad.

So over my five years as Dean, I'd like to see us cement our position on the international stage, compete with the best in the world.