From Behind the Podium

Sit Down with Dr. Kang

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

I am an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the department of Computer and Mathematical Science at the University of Toronto, where I teach statistics. I am also a statistics coordinator at the Math and Statistics Learning Centre at UTSC.

What does your typical day look like?

I come in at around 8A.M. and perform housekeeping tasks, such as checking my emails. On Monday mornings, I attend the regularly scheduled department meetings. The rest of my day consists of preparing for lectures, making worksheets, hosting office hours and statistical consultations, as well as attending various seminars. I also supervise two students who are taking a project course in statistics. I am also involved in organizing conferences.

Are you currently doing any research? If so, what areas of research are you interested in?

I am interested in online learning. Currently, I am exploring a concept known as “Effective Gamification” in education. The idea is to use game design and mechanisms to enhance student learning. I test this idea by analyzing the performance of students in introductory statistics courses. In these online games, the more questions that are answered results in an increase in the level awards (e.g. badges: for correct answers). It is optional for students to partake in these online activities.

What inspired you to pursue research and/or teaching?

I love statistics and I want to spread my passion for statistics to my student learning partners. Statistics involve using and applying mathematics and statistical software to deal with real life data. My PhD thesis was about Bayesian non-parametric statistics. (This brief concept is demonstrated in the image below.)


What kind of skills do you think are necessary to excel in the work that you do?

Skills needed as a statistician: quantitative, mathematical, and computation skills, and critical thinking skills.

Skills needed as a professor: time management, work-life balance, collaboration skills (e.g. I have collaborated with other scientists such as Dr. Treanor and Dr. Riggs.)

Why do you think having strong English language skills are important/relevant in your field of study?

At the ASA DataFest competition at UofT, international students from UTSC had great ideas but a language barrier prevented them from winning the award. Many students beginning in the Green Path program already have good technical skills but they need to improve communication skills, as this will allow them to effectively convey their brilliant ideas. Good technical skills and good communication makes the ideal combination of a good researcher, statistician and student in general.

How can students improve their English skills?

Students should be informed of and make use of all resources available to them. Often, course review sessions have high attendance because it is directly linked to grades. However, it is important for students to keep an open mind. Communication Cafés and many of the other initiatives offered by ELDC are great for practicing communication skills in an open environment. There is no shortcut in learning or improving a language, except for persistence and commitment.

What are your some of your immediate goals and/or initiatives?

My first goal is to successfully pass the review of continuing status so that I can continue making a difference at the university. The review process will start this fall.  I would also like to submit some of the papers I am working on. Ultimately, I wish to be an inspiring teacher and ensure that students gain a valuable experience by attending my classes.

What are some challenges you had to overcome?

I was an international student from Korea, and I completed my Masters and PhD in Canada. It was challenging to adapt to a new language and different way of speech. It is also challenging to change my accent and attain clarity of speech that is easily understood by all. It is important to note that at the end of the day it is our unique accent that makes the multicultural UTSC community so special.

Do you have any personal suggestions/recommendations for students looking to strengthen their English language skills?

Attend ELDC regularly to improve English skills and strengthen communication as well as interpersonal skills.

Sit Down with Dr. Shahbazi

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

I am an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Mathematical Science at the University of Toronto. I teach MATA31H3, which is a first-year Calculus course and MATD02H3, which is a fourth-year course on classical plane geometries. My current research is focused on better understanding hyperbolic geometry. I also work with the Centre for Teaching and Learning, where I coordinate the Math and Stats Learning Centre (MSLC).

What are some of your immediate goals and/or initiatives?

One of my main goals is to create different ways to improve understanding of difficult mathematical theories among students. For example, I developed an online platform called “Math In Action” which allows mathematics students to express their ideas through journal writing.

I also encourage students to make math tutorial videos. Videos are uploaded onto the MSLC website and are accessible to all students. I have designed my fourth-year course so that students have multiple opportunities to practice expressing their abstract mathematical ideas and strengthen their writing skills.

Why do you think having strong English language skills are important/relevant in your field of study?

Topics in mathematics are generally abstract, so having strong language and communication skills are important for understanding and properly explaining concepts to others. Even experts in the field, that are deeply knowledgeable about their topic, need to communicate their ideas effectively, otherwise, people won’t be able to learn from them. 

Do you have any personal suggestions/recommendations for students looking to strengthen their English language skills?

I recommend students use the services offered by ELDC and MSLC to improve their academic language and math skills. These centres are open to all students and strive to help students become more successful in their academic work.

Sit Down with Dr. Brown

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

I have been teaching at UTSC since 2013. My primary role is to teach. I teach research courses such as BIOD98 and BIOD95 which are designed to help students develop their research skills in order to strengthen their foundation for future studies. I also strive to create a friendly, accessible, and meaningful learning environment for students. Furthermore, I have been the faculty adviser for the UTSC Heart and Stroke Alliance and the UTSC Pre-Dental Society. I am also a volunteer judge for the Scinapse Undergraduate Science Case Competition.

What inspired you to pursue research and/or teaching?

I have always been passionate about teaching ever since I was a student at Wilfrid Laurier University. During my third year of study, I applied for a TA position for a biology course. I enjoyed this role very much because I was able interact with students and share my knowledge with them and help them to understand the work better.

What kind of skills do you think are necessary to excel in the work that you do?

It is very important for a person to demonstrate patience when teaching others. I was raised Catholic and the number one thing that I took away from being Catholic is that as an instructor my role is to be of service to students. Meaning, if students come seeking my help, I will not drive them away by limiting them to a specific number of questions or based on time. Instead, I will be patient with them and try to answer each question quickly and effectively.

What are some challenges you had to overcome when you were a student?

The first exam I wrote in my undergrad was a biology exam, and I remember, I did not do well on it. Obviously, I was very disappointed, so much so, that I started thinking that perhaps, biology isn’t for me and that I should pursue something different. For a long time, I thought about switching my program, but I eventually decided to take a different approach. I convinced myself that grades are not important and what matters is to appreciate knowledge and enjoy learning. I encourage university students to do the same. Adopting this mindset has helped me to overcome many challenges I faced as a student.

Why do you think having strong English language skills are important/relevant in your field of study?

The primary way that scientists communicate with each other is by reading and writing journal articles. It seems as if the English language is the primary language in the sciences. We have to have strong Academic English skills so that we can effectively communicate our research findings to others as well as understand the information published by researchers. Having strong verbal communication skills is also necessary for scientific conversations and group discussions. They are essential when asking questions and/or explaining concepts to others.

In your opinion, how much of a difference can having better fluency, a larger vocabulary, and stronger reading/writing skills make not just in a student’s academic performance, but their learning experience?

The easiest way to learn any language is to be immersed in it, in such a way that it will be useful for your field of interest. For example, if a Life Science student wants to improve their ability to read and critically analyze scientific papers, then the student should read more. The more the student reads, the more they will become familiar with important academic words. However, students that are native speakers may not read as frequently because they already have a good grasp on the language. Instead, those students may want to develop their public speaking skills and may do more presentations to enhance this skill set. 

Do you have any personal suggestions/recommendations for students looking to strengthen their English language skills?

Failure is not a bad thing. Everybody experiences some form of failure, but the important thing is to be resilient. Failure should motivate you to work harder and look for methods for improvement. A recurring problem observed among university students is that they do not know how to handle failure. Mistakes are good because they can be used to identify where a student went wrong and provide a starting point for correcting the problem. Interestingly, a faculty member once shared that she had a grad supervisor that was reluctant to hire anyone that never experienced failure. And this was because failure was inevitable in the lab, and he wanted employees that were capable of coping with failure.

There is misconception among students that failure can be avoided just by working hard. However, it is worth emphasizing that there is no correlation between how hard you work and the mark you get. Some may have to work tirelessly to achieve a certain mark while others can achieve the same mark while putting in little to no effort. The point is when you fail, do not automatically assume you have to work harder. Rather, reflect on the situation and try to determine what you can do to improve.  But most importantly, do not give up on your goals!

Have you ever experienced failure?

The first time I sent out a paper for publication, I got rejected. The reviewer provided a list of problems with the paper and explained why it will not get published. Obviously, it was very disappointing and upsetting, given the long hours I spent putting together the report.  However, I learned from my mistakes. I consulted the list, fixed the problems in my paper, and then sent it out again for publication. Experience is a great teacher. As you get older and older you learn more and know more.


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