Beyond “the homely West-side heritage home” that shelters UBC-Mathematics

I have just received the annual newsletter of the mathematics department (my department) at the University of British Columbia. And I learned a few new facts that are worth sharing. Thanks to an interesting interview with Andrew Weaver, the very first Green party MLA in British Columbia, I learned that he was one of our graduate students. His upcoming Distinguished Alumni Lecture will be on … what else: “Pipelines, Politics and Climate Science”. I presume we are not looking for the energy industry to finance a new building for UBC-math :). I confess that after 6 years on the Board of Governors, you get picky about the facts you want to learn. You start seeing even the most local facts through a more global lens, with an eye towards their potential impact. In any case, here are the facts that I would like my fellow Governors (and everyone) to know.

First, a paragraph from the statement of our hilariously funny department head. “We now comprise more than 200 faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, housed in five separate buildings, ranging from the sleek new ESB (host to the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences) to our more, shall we say, homely “West-side heritage homes”, the Mathematics Building and Annex. In the coming year, we anticipate teaching roughly 18,000 students in over 200 sections, including more than 30 graduate courses.”

Mike was of course being very diplomatic and quite charitable vis-a-vis the heritage buildings, since he is developing an Asterix-like obsession by constantly worrying about when “le ciel va nous tomber sur la tête,” before the end of his tenure as Head.

And here are a few interesting facts about our undergraduate program, some of which may be of great interest to Douglas Todd.

  • For the 2013 academic year, our total enrollment will be over 17,000. For a sense of the growth rate, the total enrollment in 2001-02 was around 13,500. International student enrollment continues to be the fastest growing segment of our student body, with an increase of 23% over 2012. And this is before the advent of the “Vantage” program, which will increase enrollment by 1000 students every year. Yes, Math will be teaching a good chunk of them, but unfortunately won’t see much of the cash!
  • Mathematics is one of nine departments in the Faculty of Science, but does 20% of its teaching. Expect this differential to increase with “Vantage”.
  • Our students come from all Faculties with undergraduate entry programs. About 70% of our students are in Science (36%) or Applied Science (34%), with the remaining students coming from the Sauder School of Business, Arts, Land and Food Systems, Forestry, and Kinesiology.
  • Students with majors or other specializations in Mathematics come to us from Science, Arts, and Applied Science.
  • About 45% of our teaching is done through first-year calculus courses. About 25% of our teaching occurs in more advanced third and fourth year courses aimed at Math Major and Honours students.

For a fuller appreciation of the scope of our teaching, please visit our undergraduate website:

Our students are some of the most talented at UBC and elsewhere:

• 13 times in the past 21 years, including each of the last three years, the Governor General’s Silver Medal for the top graduating student in Science has gone to one of our students!
• In the past decade, 6% of BSc students specialized in Mathematics but 60% of the top graduating BSc students were from one of our programs.
• In the past three years, the UBC Putnam team has ranked in the top 10 in North America. The annual Putnam Mathematics Competition is the preeminent undergraduate mathematics contest in North America. In each year of the past decade, the UBC team has placed in the top 20 in the Putnam exam, involving around 400 universities and colleges.  This is a big deal, folks!

My departmental colleagues have been quite busy on both the research and teaching fronts. We have 14 Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, 2 are Fellows of the original one (FRS), 10 Fellows of the American Mathematical Society, 3 Steacie Prizes, 5 CRM-Fields-PIMS prizes, 10 Coxeter-James, 6 Jeffery-Williams, and 5 Krieger-Nelson prizes. No luck however with the local awards, as “everybody” now know! But the department did enjoy a 100% success rate in this year’s competition for NSERC Discovery grants. Not bad considering the recent research prioritization and funds reallocation at the granting councils.

On the teaching front, my colleagues won this year’s Killam teaching prizes, both in the Faculty and Graduate student categories. This year’s faculty honouree, Dragos Ghioca (otherwise known to students as the God of Calculus) is the 10th faculty member in the department to win this award in the past decade –far exceeding any other department at the university. Hear that fellow Governors….?

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