Category Archives: People

Student Research Guides

Dennis Bernstein is a engineering professor at the University of Michigan who has written a number of research guides for those new to research. The guides are written from his personal experiences with help from colleagues and references.  They are short, candid and honest, and tackle many firsts of a new researcher such as getting started on a problem, presenting and writing papers. All the guides are found here.


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Leola Chow (Post-doctoral Fellow at University of Manitoba)

Leola Chow completed a Bachelors of Science degree in genetics at the University of Alberta in 2000.  As part of the program requirement, she completed an honours project in her last year of undergraduate studies.  This parlayed into a summer research position, then a Master’s thesis which was ultimately completed as a Phd Thesis.  Her thesis research investigated factors that determine cell fate. After graduating, Leola was awarded a Canadian Blood Services post-doctoral fellowship at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto where she studied autoimmune diseases related to blood. Currently, Leola is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Manitoba  where she tests treatments for asthma and arthritis.

Her graduate studies taught her basic laboratory skills required for performing sophisticated biological experiments, provided her with a comprehensive knowledge of molecular biology and also made her realize her affinity for medical research.  Because of this, Leola was able to transition smoothly into a more clinical field for her post-doctoral research which involves hematology, cell analysis, human immune diseases and designing animal models to investigate these diseases. After many years of studying, researching and learning in a highly specialized field, Leola now considers herself a professional immunologist/geneticist with a specialization in immune diseases.

Having spent a number of years as both a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow, Leola feels both positions are research intensive and require a lot of self-learning.  As a PhD student, you are teaching yourself to be a critical and thorough research scientist and learning basic experimental techniques needed for more specialized research. As a post-doctoral fellow, there is less need for learning fundamental procedures and a more immediate jump into the research project.  In addition, it is rare for a post-doctoral fellow in her field to teach while it is quite common that graduate students are part-time teaching assistants.

A few words of wisdom from Leola for future and current graduate students are as follows. Consider a supervisor who is active in the laboratory and involved with his/her graduate students as well as someone who has a small research group. This allows for an open and intimate learning environment with opportunities for everyone to share and communicate.  As a post-doctoral fellow, work with a researcher who is established because at this stage, the research is extremely intensive and hence, requires more resources and an experienced mentor. Lastly, having acquired her second post-doctoral position via networking, Leola wants you to know that it is never too early to network and open yourself to future career opportunities.

Thank you to Leola for taking the time to do this interview.

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Ryan Trelford (PhD Student at University of Calgary)

Ryan Trelford began his post–secondary education at Red Deer College and it was there that a mathematics instructor encouraged him to pursue a mathematics degree. He completed both a bachelor of science degree with specialization in mathematics and a master of science degree in pure mathematics at the University of Alberta. Currently, he is a PhD student at the University of Calgary studying computational and discrete geometry.

Due to the recession, Ryan chose to enter a master’s program after graduating from his bachelor’s degree. His master’s did not progress as smoothly as most and he eventually switched supervisors and required an additional year to complete his degree. Because of these setbacks, Ryan took some time off after finishing his master’s degree. During this break, he missed teaching and realized he wanted a teaching career at a post-secondary institution; however, this often requires more than just a master’s degree.

From his master’s studies, Ryan knew his research interests precisely and who to work with for his PhD. There were four universities under consideration: University of Western Ontario and University of Calgary as well as the American universities, Case Western Reserve and Northeastern University. He was in personal contact with potential supervisors at both American universities and settled on Case Western Reserve, but was awarded an entrance scholarship to Calgary. Coupled with the economic downturn in the U.S., the University of Calgary was ultimately chosen.

Now two full years into his PhD program, Ryan has no regrets and is very happy to be pursing a degree there. He felt that his graduate experience at the University of Alberta was too independent because of the university’s large graduate program. Calgary has a smaller math community and more encouragement for attending seminars and conferences as well as applying for awards and scholarships.

Though he finds research rewarding, Ryan’s passion is teaching. Once his PhD studies are complete, he hopes to teach full-time and not necessarily in mathematics. He simply loves teaching and, for example, would gladly accept an opportunity to travel overseas to teach English.

Lastly, Ryan’s words of wisdom for current and new graduate students is to keep an open mind and realize that “graduate school is not an extension of undergrad. Do not expect weekly assurances that you’re doing a good job.” Graduate students should also be aware that in research, “you can stare at a problem for months and get nowhere with it” but do not be discouraged because in most cases, no one knows the answer.

A big thank you to Ryan for taking the time for this interview and also read about his teaching philosophies and experiences on NerdyMathJitsu.

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Hassan Nasir (President of Graduate Student Association)

Hassan Nasir is the current elected President of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) at the University of Waterloo (UW). From 2009 to 2010, he held the elected position of Vice President of Operations and Finance.  In this position, he established a universal bus pass for all full time registered graduate students and spearheaded an extension of health services which will now include a family clinic and additional services.  He has also been a Director at Large and Departmental Councillor for the GSA.  Before Hassan’s involvement with the GSA, he was elected Vice President External for the (UW) Civil and Environmental Engineering Graduate Student Association.

As GSA president he is the “head representative of the graduate students within the university and outside the university”. Primarily, this role involves sitting on various committees such as the Board of Governors, Senate, GSA council, chairing the Long Range Planning Committee and co-chairing the Graduate Student Relations Committee with the Associate Provost of Graduate Studies.   In these committees, he advocates on graduate student issues, votes and often simply listens to remain up-to-date on university issues.  He also attends three meetings (the Policy and Strategy Meeting, Lobby Conference and Annual General Meeting) of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.  Each meeting is a week long and occurs annually in different Canadian cities.

There are many issues that Hassan is involved in.  An important issue that many universities, including UW, focus on is graduate student funding. The GSA helped establish a minimum funding guarantee for PhD students but there is currently no such guarantee for Master’s students. In addition, the higher cost of living and rise in tuition is a serious concern affecting all graduate students. This is compounded with the provincial government’s announcement in March that there will be a ban on salary increases for the 2010 to 2011 fiscal year which means there will be no increase in teaching assistant pay rates.  There will be a small increase in the minimum funding guarantee for PhD students but Hassan knows that this is not a sufficient increase.  Hassan also recognizes the diverse group of students attending UW, especially at the graduate level.  For example, UW has a higher percentage of graduate students with families among the top 13 research intensive universities in Canada.  Naturally, one of the main issues Hassan is interested in is providing adequate family housing and childcare for graduate students on graduate student salaries. Another concern Hassan foresees is limited resources as the graduate student population grows.  In particular, UW is aiming to double their graduate student population from approximately 4000 to 8000 by 2017.  Many issues such as office space, which all full-time UW graduate students are entitled to, and parking space will arise.  In fact, limited office and parking space are already current issues Hassan is dealing with.

In addition to his role as GSA president, Hassan is also a full-time second-year PhD student in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Although the demands of the GSA can at times be hectic, there is downtime especially in the summer and he never feels his studies and research suffer.  After years involved with the GSA, Hassan has “mastered balancing both roles”.

Hassan feels a great deal of satisfaction with his GSA involvement and sees the benefits of his hard work; so naturally, his words of wisdom to current and future graduate students is to become more “involved with working for the students, departments and community.”  He also appreciates the “respectful and accommodating” environment at UW and encourages everyone to continue with this tradition.

Thank you to Hassan for taking the time to do this interview.

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Elaine Beltaos (Assistant Professor)

Elaine Beltaos is a new faculty member in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Grant MacEwan University.  In 2009 she completed her PhD in algebra at the University of Alberta and now considers herself a professional mathematician.

The transition from graduate student to faculty member has been both difficult and easy for Elaine.  In her current position, there are greater responsibilities and a more structured schedule, but at the same time, there is also more collaboration on research and a stronger emphasis on teaching.  A typical day for Elaine at Grant MacEwan consists of teaching, seeing students, preparing lectures, coordinating courses, attending meetings and during the summer months research is the main focus which involves “reading and trying to solve math problems”.   Her experiences and struggles with research throughout graduate school provided her with the skills to “learn, think and attack problems” and also help her to relate to her students’ difficulties with math.

It was also during her graduate studies that Elaine cultivated her exemplary teaching record and became a popular teaching assistant and sessional lecturer. She has been asked to speak on teaching panels and was honoured in 2003 and 2008 with the highly competitive Graduate Student Teaching Award.   In her opinion, the three most important qualities of a good instructor are: be your (professional) self, be adaptable especially in the classroom and with your students, and show your passion for math.

Elaine’s words of wisdom to current and future graduate students are: “don’t give up!” because there will often be times when you want to.

Thank you to Elaine for taking the time to do this interview.

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Donna Messer (Networking Expert)

Donna Messer is a networking guru and I had the good fortune of attending one of her workshops. The workshop was sponsored through MITACS to help graduate students learn effective networking. Donna spent three hours literally connecting us to people she knows from around the world and at the same time teaching us how to network with what we have and then building from there.  If you can’t attend one of her workshops or speaking engagements, then browse through her website where she shares her networking philosophies and resources.

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