Sarah and I talk space engineering, Jay-Z, and the underlying beauty of math in the universe.
D: Why don’t we start with your name?
D: And what are you studying?
S: Engineering Physics.
D: So I take it you don’t have a last name Sarah?
S: *laugh* My last name is Li! It’s a Chinese last name, and I happen to be Chinese.
D: Okay *laugh*! Have you grown up in Vancouver your whole life?
S: Nope! I grew up in China, and I moved to Victoria when I was ten (that’s where my family is now), and I’m just here for school.
D: And how do you like it?
S: It’s good! Vancouver is just like a larger version of Victoria, more… cosmopolitan? Yeah, cosmopolitan. So it’s kind of nice, probably the largest city I’ve ever been to.
D: Do you have any siblings?
S: Yeah, I have a six-year old brother, he was born here, because in China we have the one-child policy, so when we came here, my parents decided to have him!
D: That’s great! Tell me a bit more about your parents, what are they like?
S: Well, my dad is a computer engineer, which has influenced me a lot, because a lot of the stuff I’m doing nowadays is software related, and my mom is an accountant. Her whole family is in the financial industry, which has definitely influenced the public speaking side of me.
"...a lot of it is automatic, and you can code anything."
D: Okay, so on that note, how did you end up getting involved with Toastmasters?
S: Well it’s actually a funny story, because my mom joined a Toastmasters club, at her work, she works for CRA, and they had a club going on since it’s a very common place for non-native English speakers to learn and practice their English. But then she told me about it, and I remembered that we had one here at UBC, so I decided to come check it out!
D: Cool! So it was your mom's influence that got you involved! And how long have you been a part of the club?
S: Since January! I was at Toastmasters at my workplace since last September, but not as an official member.
D: And where were you working?
S: Oh, I was working at MDA, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it, but they were the ones who made the Canadarm, so they’re Canada’s biggest space engineering company, and they’re out here in Richmond. I was working on the RCM, the satellite mission , launching in 2018, and so I was coding for that.
D: Very cool! Space engineering… what are your thoughts then on Elon Musk’s space tourism business?
S: I haven’t heard too much about it to be honest, but I think it is definitely achievable. I wouldn’t want to be the first one up, because then you might be the first one to fall down!
D: Good point *laugh* So then are you in your third year, fourth year?
S: I’m in my fourth year of a five year program.
D: And what do you want to be doing at the end of that? Do you think you’ll go back to work for MDA?
S: Yeah! I would love to, it’s a great company, in a cool industry, and that’s where I wanted to go initially, so after I graduate, I might go to MDA for a few years, then maybe go to grad school, because I want to go to grad school as well *laugh*
D: I think everyone likes the idea of grad school *laugh* so what is engineering physics, exactly?
S: Engineering physics is a blend of mechanical, electrical, and software engineering, and then you can specialize in either mechanical or electrical, and I’m in electrical. In reality, if you’re an engineer, and you have any skills as a coder or software developer, that’s what you’ll be doing, because that’s just where the most work is right now. And with engineering, a lot of it is automatic, and you can code anything. Eventually I do want to do more electrical, and right now I’m studying mechanical and electrical stuff, but in the workplace I’m mostly doing software stuff.
"I used to be a DJ, and I play a Chinese instrument called a pipa.."
D: Interesting. Outside of work and Toastmasters, do you have any hobbies you like to do?
S: *laugh* engineering has kind of taken over my life. Before I was in engineering I used to have lots of hobbies, but right now I think Toastmasters is the only club I’m a part of. I do a lot of fitness stuff, (I’m going to the gym after this, keeping a healthy lifestyle *laugh*). But before, I used to paint, I used to skateboard, I used to be a DJ at a radio station in Victoria, I was really involved in the local politics, involved with the youth council on some cultural committees, I did quite a lot of stuff. But engineering has just kind of sucked all my time away.
D: Wow, so do you think you’ll be able to go back to any of that stuff at some point?
S: Oh yeah, I would love to go further with my painting. Once engineering ends and I start working, I’d love to pick that up again. And I mean, I still love music, I used to be a DJ, and I play a Chinese instrument called a pipa, but i haven’t had much time to play it, and it’s at home in Victoria right now. After graduation *laugh*
D: That’s very cool! So, you’ve lived here since you were ten, but do you have any memories of China? Do you miss it at all, or notice any differences?
S: There are a lot of differences for sure, and I do miss China. When I’m just out and about, and I see these international students walking around, they definitely bring a piece of China with them. The way they dress, their language, the way the speak, it’s like, the Chinese street style.
D: Really? I was never even aware!
S: *laugh* Well when you meet international students, just look at their clothes.
D: *laugh* Now, you mentioned brands- I’ve heard other people say that China is very materialistic, very focused on consumer goods, do you agree with that statement?
S: Like, wanting to drive the nice car, have the nice house, have the latest stuff?
S: I totally agree.
D: And what do you think about that?
S: Well… I think it’s just part of the culture to be honest. Chinese people like to save money, their very low maintenance people, but when you have that little extra money, you want to wear brands, look good, drive that nicer car. In Richmond, it’s just like, Mercedes, Porsches everywhere.
D: Wow, I should be a valet in Richmond then!
S: Oh man, when I was working for MDA, I never wanted to drive in Richmond because the driving is so bad, and if I hit a car, its too expensive, I could never pay for it.
D: Student life *laugh*. Sarah, how would you describe your experience here at UBC? What has been your.. story, from year to year?
S: So, engineering physics is kind of special, because it is half engineering and half science, and I am also doing a math minor, so I’ve seen some engineering, some science, some math, and I guess my experience has been.. well, very focused on academics, and school is a large part of my life, because of all the classes I’m taking.
"Once you know Jz, you know everything! So the prof is just like, Jz, Jz... Jay-Z!"
D: Okay, well, do you find that you are a very different person from first-year? Have you found your niche, or have you been more or less the same?
S: I think coming out of high school, engineering is already a very specialized group, so it was like I had a niche right out of the gate. Everyone is very alike in engineering, so it was like after first year, I had already found my thing, and then Engineering Physics is an even smaller faculty. So I think I’ve gravitated towards people who are more like myself rather than being changed by my surroundings.
D: Okay, fair enough. What are some of the most difficult classes that you’ve taken?
S: ECE 320 was a tough class. It was algorithms, how to develop algorithms, how to think of optimization problems, for any problem that’s out there. It was super hard, I think our final was probably 50%, but they scale everything, so you never know. But from talking with people, there’s only like, eight questions, and everyone is like, “oh my god, I only got four” “I only got two!”
D: Well, it sounds like you’ve got a good handle on all of your engineering courses, but after you graduate, what are some things you’d like to check off your bucket list?
S: To travel. This summer, I’m actually applying for a co-op in Germany, so if I get it, I’m going to go travelling, and if I don’t get it, I’m still going to go travel!
S: *laugh* Either way I’m going to Europe this summer, because i feel like I haven’t really been around enough. even in Canada, the only other place I’ve been to outside of BC was Ottawa- I just want to see what’s out there, you know?
D: Very cool! Coming back to Toastmasters, what are some of your goals for being in the club?
S: Well, it’s a very different environment than school, and its very stress relieving for me, so it’s just a stress-buster for me at this point. I mean, I do want to get better at speaking, because in engineering especially, people are really bad at speaking, and if there is even just one good speaker, it would make life so much easier.
D: “I speak for the engineers” *laugh*
S: *laugh* Exactly, and having that insider perspective. So yeah, just want to get better at speaking, I feel like I have a lot still to learn- from people like you!
D: *laugh* Thank you, I think I still have a lot to learn too.
S: *laugh* Well, from my perspective, when I listen to your speeches, there’s so many things in there! I mean, not only is it well-delivered, but they’re so interesting, and I’m just like, oh my god, this is awesome!
D: *laugh* Well, thank you, I like public speaking, but I guess that’s why we’re here! When you’re giving a speech, what do you like to talk about?
S: Well, I’m planning my next speech, and I’m going to talk about Jay-Z! It actually came up in my quantum mechanics class. Felipe is in my class, and we’re just sitting in class, learning about angular momentum, and it’s notated J, and the z-component is the most important part! You don’t need to know x or y, just Jz! Once you know Jz, you know everything! So the prof is just like, Jz, Jz... Jay-Z! So I’m going to talk about Jay-Z, I really like his music, I really like rap, and I think he is very successful as a musician, and as a businessman, and I really admire that. He’s boosted entire brands, just from his songs, and as a rapper, someone who grew up in the ghetto, I think he’s a very powerful figure.
D: Interesting, I’m looking forward to it! You mentioned you like math, what are some other things you like?
S: Well, when I first came to UBC, I originally wanted to do math, but i was talking to my high school math teacher, and he was telling me; “yeah, math is great, but more as a backup. If you do a math bachelors, you would want to go to grad school for sure. A math bachelor’s degree by itself isn’t very useful, but engineering has math in it, and it’s much more applicable, so you could complete that and then go on to grad school, or just work. So that’s how I ended up in the mathiest engineering program at UBC!
D: Okay, but what is it that you like about it, about math?
S: Oh man, I don’t know.. I just like it, I’m such a math nerd, my first speech was on math. It’s so… perfect. Math is all about abstracting everything until you have just the essentials, and then you can build… so much more without all the technicalities. And then, engineering is about taking that and bringing it back to the real world, you know? So, I like math because it’s abstract, but I can also appreciate the.. ‘coolness’ of engineering now, building robots and stuff *laugh*
D: But you really love the math.
D: That’s cool, and I think a lot of really cool ideas come from math.
S: Oh yeah, it’s like… the start of everything. Math has a lot of influence, and physics, everything has to come from math.
D: Have you ever heard of the debate, ‘where does math come from?’ What are your thoughts on that?
S: Yeah, I talked about that a little bit in my first speech, and I think math is inherent, the ideas of greater than, less than, those are inherent. Humans have that as part of their survival instinct, we go for the bigger piece of food etc. And from there it is just a question of, “okay, how much bigger is it?” And that’s where we developed numbers.
D: It was the Arabians who invented numbers, wasn’t it?
S: Yeah! But they didn’t have the number zero at the beginning, they couldn’t figure it out, and it was the Indians who gave it to us. And I don’t really know how to think about that, but I think it’s a part of the human race’s progress, whatever you want to call it.
D: Interesting. So do you think we will ever stop discovering things about math?
S: Mmmmm… I don’t think so.
D: Is math infinite?
S: No, not that math is infinite, but in how we apply it. Take quantum, that’s what I’m studying, it revived the matrices, algebra side of math. So I guess I wouldn’t say that more and more things are being discovered, but the ways in which we can apply math are always being discovered. There are abstract mathematicians, who just hope that one day the things which they are working on will be used, while applied mathematicians are taking what we have and finding practical solutions to problems. Technology will progress, science will progress, and I think that the more we discover, the more different applications of math we will need, which will drive math forward.
D: So you don’t think there will ever be an absolutely ‘complete’ math?
S: Well, I don’t think there will be any more fundamental theorems being discovered, but its so… big, so much logic contained within it, and I don’t think we will ever figure out all of its intricacies.
D: Interesting.. I know for my math professor, that if he was reading outside of his particular branch of mathematics, he couldn’t even understand what they are saying, just because it is so specific. So I’m just curious where you draw your conclusions from, or what makes you think that way.
S: Well, take the Fourier transformation for example. In first year, you learn what it is, in second year you apply it in this direction, in third year, you apply it in that direction, and in fourth year, we apply it to so many different fields. So I feel that the ideas are there, but their applications are limitless, because its linked with our culture, with our time, and our technology. As different technology is developed, that will spur further ways in which we can apply those same ideas. So no, I don’t think we’ll ever run out of ways to apply those ideas.
D: Fascinating. Thank you very much Sarah!
S: Thank you!