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Interview with Matt Davison

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

📷 AMMCS 2019

Journalists: Romina Mahinpei, Kian Kousha

Kian: Hi, I'm Kian

Romina: And I'm Romina.

Kian: And you're listening to SciSection on 93.3 CFMU.

Romina: We are here today with Dr. Matt Davison who is the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Western University. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Davison.

Dr. Davison: It's really my pleasure.

Romina: To start, we do have two rapid fire questions for you. Firstly, who is one of your role models in the scientific community?

Dr. Davison: So, there was an American mathematician called Richard Hamming and he was the author of a lot of really influential textbooks. one called Digital Filters, which I discovered when I was a second-year student working in a lab for a summer. And it really kind of changed my life by changing my path from engineering to applied math and really understanding why that was so exciting. And I've re-engaged with his work over and over again, over my years, and kept on finding that he was writing books in areas that I was interested in. He's probably someone that a lot of people haven't heard of. For those with any kind of interest in the mathematical side of engineering or the practical side of math, I really encourage you to Google them and take a look.

Kian: That sounds awesome. And for our second question, what do you think has been one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time?

Dr. Davison: It's something called continuous time finance and it's the idea of using mathematics to continuously rebalance portfolios to remove all the risk from them. And I think it's been so influential because it's taken a field of study, that of finance, a field of human endeavor and transformed it from something that was traditionally not thought to be science at all, but to be some type of, you know, qualitative discipline or maybe even some kind of black magic kind of thing, and it turned it into a really, quite a branch of mathematics. And it's an area where there are many science PhDs working in industry and it's transformed that entire subject. And it did it in a very interesting way. It did it by somehow finding a really clever way to factor out a lot of the complexity of human life and to make the question really simple. And because the question became simple enough, it could also become really quantitative and get really deep along a very simple, a very simple front of endeavor. So, I think that's been a very influential.

Romina: Well, it certainly does sound amazing and hopefully more students will look into it after hearing your response too. And now moving onto your profession, could you give us a summary of your educational path and how it led you to where you are today?

Dr. Davison: Sure. So, I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, and I was telling Kian earlier, I listened to CFMU growing up. After high school, I went to the University of Toronto where I studied a program called engineering science, which was a sort of a mixture of math, physics, and engineering. Specialized within that, then further in geoscience, exploration, geophysics. And so, I kind of got a fairly broad exposure to many different things and that's helped me out a lot actually in my current role of Dean of Science. Cause I have a feeling for a lot of the different pieces of my faculty. After that I did a PhD in applied math and followed that up with postdoctoral research in physiology actually, in mathematical physiology and in Europe. And that was the late 90s and it wasn't really all that easy to get an academic job at the time. And then I actually had an opportunity to go work at an investment bank. And that's where I learned about quantitative finance and this continuous time finance, (which) I was sharing earlier. Did that for a few years and then a faculty position emerged at Western, which is where I'd done my PhD, and I got invited to apply for it and I've been at Western ever since.

Kian: That sounds awesome and really inspiring actually. So, with your position right now, it will be a success story. And a lot of us students actually usually get fascinated by success or the end product without knowing all the challenges that were faced along the way. So, I'm sure being at your position right now did not happen easily. So, can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced along the way as the students?

Dr. Davison: So, I don't really want to overstate the challenges. I've been very fortunate in my own life. I grew up in an academic family, so academia was very supported all the way along by my family. And I grew up in a financially stable situation. When I was a student, university was cheap. I still got scholarships and so I didn't have any really (tough), any real challenges at that stage. I think everyone faces challenges in their life. They're at different points and they're in different ways. I think for me, the challenges were later in my career as I sort of expanded my idea of what it was to be a scientist from doing my own individual research, to trying to be a department chair and a Dean and to try to lead other people and inspire them. And whenever there's people involved, there's always opportunities for great things and there's also opportunities for difficulties. And so maybe, maybe if I face challenges, it's been in the later stage of my career, more so than at the beginning, which was very smooth for me.

Romina: Yeah. And it also goes to show that as a Dean, with your profession, you clearly lead such a busy lifestyle. So what activities do you rely on to balance your professional life?

Dr. Davison: Yeah, so, I probably don't have the most balanced life I have to admit, I do spend a lot of time working. I do like spending time with my family. I have two sons, one in the university and one in grade 12. So, my two sons, my wife and I, there are many things we like to do together. I like to ride my bicycle. I like to go hiking. I like to listen to music and I like to read novels. So they're not the most exciting hobbies, but that's, that's what it is. That's what I got. And I like to spend a lot of time with friends.

Kian: That sounds awesome. A lot of us students in Canada, or we can say North America, have this sort of a stigma around math and think that it is hard and it's not for them. Why do you think that is then? Do you think our education system is to blame here? Or are there any ways we can just fix this stigma around that?

Dr. Davison: That’s a really good question. And I know that many people, whenever I meet people, I usually try to postpone the time when I have to tell them what I do for a living because it's awkward. And in fact, my son was on a hockey team and I managed to avoid the conversation for almost four years with people about what I did for a living and just sort of kept it that I did something at the university and who really knew what that was.

Dr. Davison: Because when you say you are a mathematician, you get two responses. One is that “you must be smart”, which is just embarrassing, and the other is “I hate math”.

Dr. Davison: And every once in a while… (For example) I was getting my hair cut and Mississauga once years and years ago. And I told the hairdresser what I did, and she said, math was my favorite subject. And I'm like, wow, you're like one of one in a thousand people to say that. But for the most part you hear, I hate math and I don't quite understand why people hate math so much, except for the fact that I think it's often so, so black and white, and so cut and dried and so right and wrong that it is challenging for people to find it interesting for so many years. And later when they start seeing how powerful it is, they realize they kind of can't go back to learning the pieces. Because they feel like it's too late. I don't think it actually is too late, but they feel like it is. And I think that's a challenge and it's a challenge for the development of a lot of people's scientific potential in some ways.

Romina: For sure. I feel like around math and science in general, there has been this stigma that it is for like a select group of people while really there are so many applications within them that it is something that everyone can enjoy as long as they're willing to explore and learn a little bit about it. So, hopefully after hearing this interview and hearing your perspective, more students become open-minded to math and science and allow themselves to discover all these possibilities within them.

Dr. Davison: I hope so.

Romina: And speaking of students, I know for all of us university students, this upcoming term is going to be certainly unique with the remote learning experience. So do you have any tips or advice for students going into this online university style?

Dr. Davison: Yeah. So, there are actually some advantages in, in things being online. Particularly when it's asynchronous online and you can take the time you need for a lecture and not sort of feel that (pressure) as sometimes we all feel in lectures that after the first half hour, you're like, I'm so lost. I can't, I have no idea what's going on. You can, you can pause it. You can go back. You can take a minute to search the internet for other references. And that's a good thing. I do think we also have to recognize that we're doing this not completely because we want to, but because we have to, and there are obviously some drawbacks. So, I think one of the drawbacks is that people tend to lose the connection with their fellow students. And a really great way to learn is to learn with a group of classmates and have study groups or have problem solving sessions together or study for exams together. And it's a lot easier. Historically, universities have made that kind of easy, particularly for students lucky enough to live on campus because they have a community that they're actually living with as well as studying with. But even for students who are living off campus, they're still coming to campus every day and they're still running into people that they can get together. When it's remote, you may be studying at UBC but living in Kingston and your classmates may be all over the North America, and it's going to be much harder to replicate that, you know, working together group, which has challenges for your mood and your health, like mental health, I would say as well as for your educational background.

Dr. Davison: So, I guess my number one advice would be to try and reach out to people as much as you can and try and make those connections.

Dr. Davison: And I fully understand that it's way harder than it was, you know, in the face to face situation, but that just means you have to work harder to, to somehow make it happen. So, that'll be my number one piece of advice for the online world.

Kian: Thank you for sharing that. I'm sure a lot of students appreciate hearing that from you. That does bring us to the end of this interview. Dr. Davison, thank you once again for joining us today and highlighting the importance of science and math. For everyone listening, make sure to check out our podcasts available on global platforms as well as iHeartRadio.


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