Listening to lead: Terry Gannon takes up the torch as Chair of the Department of Mathematical & Statistical Sciences

A long-time professor in the department, Terry Gannon begins his tenure as chair on July 1, 2020.

Jennifer Pascoe - 17 July 2020

With a focus on finding creative solutions to problems and collaborating to strengthen science and society, Professor Terry Gannon started as chair in the Department of Mathematical & Statistical Sciences on July 1. A pure mathematician, Gannon takes over for long-time chair Arturo Pianzola, who has steered the department for the past 13 years. 

The Department of Mathematical & Statistical Sciences shepherds nearly 21,000 students from across campus through 190 math and stats course offerings every year. To instruct these numbers of undergraduates requires 58 faculty members and 24 instructional and faculty lecturers to teach up to 300 course sections. Along with its 150 thesis and course-based graduate students, 14 postdocs, and combined total of 560 honors, specialization, and math and stats majors, the department is well poised to respond to the problems and anticipate solutions to the challenges in today’s world, such as tracking the spread of disease, collaborating with industry partners in financial technology, and leading the world in the fields of pure math and the ever-increasing importance of statistics in a data-driven world.

Gannon is focused on listening closely and learning from his community as he lays plans to set his scientists and students up for success, channeling strength and confidence to turn challenges into opportunity and optimism for the future.

What brought you to the role of Chair? Why were you called to lead?

“Mostly, it was to acquire the ‘Menacing Glare’ superpower,” jokes Gannon.

I’m at a special point in my career. My research is at its peak. My teaching has never been more innovative and effective. These power points in life, when self-confidence is highest, are the best times to take on new challenges. I’ve been treated well by my department over the years, and this is a way to give back.

I got a taste of administration and leadership in 2016/17 when I was acting chair. It was weird to think about the whole department instead of merely my own tiny corner of it—a change of perspective very much like the first time one switches to teacher from student. Weird and scary and exciting at the same time. In that year, I learned that I had a backbone. I could stand by an unpopular decision I believed in. I could say no to a friend. Actually, I learned a lot about myself that year. There were successes and failures, but by far the greatest triumph was that after it all, the department as a whole seemed happy to have me return three years later and become Chair for real.

What are you hoping to accomplish in the role of Chair? What are your goals for the next five years?

I’m not a ‘grand visions’ sort of leader. Any goals we pursue over the next five years will be collaborative responses to internal and external pressures. It would be a bit naive and arrogant of me to think that, so early into the role, I already have identified these.

But I am motivated by boosting morale in the department. I want to increase transparency as well as the engagement level. If you don’t like something, that’s fine, let’s talk about it and work toward change. I want us all to feel we belong, that we all have influence. I will listen to everyone. 

At the undergraduate level, our course offerings and programs can be adapted to better address the changing realities at local high schools. At the graduate level, we will focus on fostering a competitive environment to attract the best and brightest students. 

We must address our serious gender imbalance within the department. I would love to further build upon our engagement initiatives with Indigenous students and teachers and the community. I hope we can be a positive influence for our local K-12 schools in upgrading teacher skills and influencing curriculum. In the spirit of interdisciplinarity and collaboration, we will focus on increasing interactions with related departments such as physics and computing science at the University of Alberta as well as math and stats departments across Western Canada.

Unfortunately, we live in interesting times, with the onset of COVID-19 as well as environmental concerns. Just as 9/11 did two decades earlier, these new crises are changing the way we do business. In particular, mathematicians and statisticians have been amongst the heaviest travellers in academia, unencumbered as they are by labs and aided by solid research grants but sharing a pressing need to talk with fellow experts. However, we must change our paradigm and move away from making several short visits. Although virtual events can replace some aspects of in-person conferences, the flexibility and informality of face-to-face interactions will remain essential to our collaborations. Over the coming years, we hope to supplement these virtual events with long-term visitors. These visitors will be at all levels, from graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to distinguished professors.

What is your disciplinary background? How might your scientific background inform your administrative direction?

I’m a pure mathematician, working on the interface of algebra with number theory and mathematical physics. Just as classical physics helped us centuries ago develop calculus and related areas, today quantum field theory is forcing us to evolve our notions of symmetry and geometry. This is the area in which I work.

How pure mathematicians approach an opportunity in an area of strength—with creativity and eyes open wide—teaches us how to approach a challenge in an area of less confidence. We approach a research problem by first stripping aside the fluff and isolating the kernel, and if it still looks mysterious and intractable, then like a street fighter we hammer it with anything we find until we make a crack before switching to more elegant surgical means. And once we’ve sorted it out in our own head, then we repackage our insights so they can be registered by ears not necessarily predisposed to listen. I have to figure it out internally before the solution means anything to me, but collaborations can help at every level, from identifying the problem to stripping away fluff to handing me hammers to teaching me surgical methods to repackaging.

I try to use that to guide my approach to any difficult challenge I face in life. In particular, that process will inform my administrative direction.

What are the biggest challenges ahead for the department? How will you focus on turning those challenges into opportunities?

The department is in a good place. It has had strong leadership under Arturo Pianzola for many years. The impacts of COVID-19 and the shifting postsecondary landscape pose serious challenges. Externally imposed constraints are rarely pleasant, but they will make us stronger. Our most beautiful music—namely, classical—is our most constrained. These transitional times are hard, but they will force us to find new ways to each and research, which are just as effective but perhaps more efficient. 

For example, we are moving more of our instruction to remote delivery. The transition will be challenging for instructors and students alike, but some of these changes will persist in the post-COVID-19 world and should ultimately mean more efficient and effective teaching for our instructors with more meaningful and accessible student engagement. Remote delivery means we may be able to offer some higher level courses to students at other universities. This can increase the visibility of our department and can conversely increase the range of courses our students can take. This time of transition will ultimately improve our learning environment.

Likewise, moving more conferences and seminars on-line gives us greater exposure and accessibility when we give a talk and conversely allows our faculty and our students to attend many more talks than we could have before. The money and time we save can be redirected into long-term visitors, as mentioned above.

We can be optimistic for the future.

Any final words as you continue in the early days of your administrative adventure?

Math and stats are incredibly useful in today’s world. Schools ask us to help them. Banks and industry and Wall Street and Silicon Valley hire our graduates. Governments and sports teams ask us for advice. And the world, with some notable exceptions, is becoming more and more numerical. We have opportunities to design programs to build on these opportunities, increasing our relevance in the competitive global market.

We are a hidden gem. That’s why I want to advertise us: when you have a good product, you should tell people about it. We are unquestionably the leading math and stats department in the Prairies.

And finally: the “Menacing Glare” seems overrated. (It certainly seems powerless over my kids.)

Welcome, Terry!