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1 PhD math student + 1 tech company = a winning internship opportunity

New Solutions Canada network pairs research scientists with industry
April 12, 2017
Heather Hardeman, doctoral student in mathematics and statistics at the University of Calgary, and Matt McDonald, a University of Calgary alumnus and signal processing R&D manager at Fotech Solutions.

Heather Hardeman, doctoral student in mathematics and statistics at the University of Calgary, and Matt McDonald, a University of Calgary alumnus and signal processing R&D manager at Fotech Solutions.

Fotech Solutions helped invent fibre optic technology that runs along pipelines, down wells and around perimeters collecting information —  vibrations — every couple of metres or so. The “bleeding edge” company in downtown Calgary has about 30 employees and a growing client list around the world, and now it has an intern who can help the company take its technology to the next level. 

PhD student Heather Hardeman, who is researching how applied mathematics can improve seismic imaging, is working at Fotech for the next six months, funded by an NSERC Engage grant. “I wanted to get some industry experience because I have only ever been in academia,” says Hardeman. “I do hope to teach one day but I also want to be able to help my students who want to go into industry.”

For Fotech, Hardeman’s internship adds significant bench strength. “Heather is working on problems that otherwise we might not have the resources to even think about,” says Matt McDonald, Fotech’s signal processing R&D manager, who graduated from UCalgary with a master's in mathematics. “I only have so many hours in the day that I can think about these problems.”

While internships and co-op programs are common in engineering, business and other disciplines in universities across Canada, pairing students in mathematics with industry has been rare. Until now. A new national network of Canadian institutes for the mathematical and statistical sciences, Solutions Canada, is linking research scientists and students with industry.

“Mathematicians across the country are doing very good work but there are not that many who are saying let’s take this information and transfer it to industry,” says Michael Lamoureux, professor of mathematics in the Faculty of Science and Hardeman’s supervisor. “Contributing to the body of knowledge within mathematics is, by itself, a very exciting and rich area. There is also a lot of value to transferring that somewhere else, and I think that’s a relatively new idea for some researchers.”

UCalgary, which is part of both PIMS, Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, and CANSSI, Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute, is committed to creating new collaborations and building networks like Solutions Canada. “We want people in business to know you can come to a mathematician or statistician and say, ‘I have a data analysis problem, I have a problem modelling some sort of industrial process, how do I deal with that?'” says Lamoureux. “There’s good potential in matching academic expertise with what different companies need.”

Like Fotech and Hardeman. The company’s Distributed Acoustic Sensor (DAS) technology uses fibre optics to measure vibration. “Pipeline leak detection is really big one for us,” says McDonald. “We also do railway lines or if you have a border you want to monitor around a building or house. We can provide clients intelligence on any kind of linear asset.”

The technology collects an enormous amount of data — there can be hundreds of thousands of points monitoring vibrations. “We need to take that vibrational information and turn it into something we can use to make decisions. For example, if we measure the vibration of a pipeline, how do we know when and where the pipeline is leaking based on how that vibration signature changes in time,” says McDonald. “Heather is working on that problem — taking vibrations in the structure and turning that into something we can use to make decisions.”

Hardeman is enjoying the challenge. Not only is she getting pretty good at MATLAB software — “I’ve had to immerse myself in it” — she’s learning a new way to approach problems. “Coming from a school setting, you have all these books and you’re just working off the books. In an industry setting you just go at it, try to solve it and see what happens,” she says. “It’s helped me learn different approaches to solving problems and get more comfortable with coming up with my own ideas.”

UCalgary supports the Solutions Canada network, which serves as a bridge connecting Canadian companies with quantitative scientists who solve problems through modelling, optimization, simulation and data science, facilitating collaborations between companies, research scientists, and students in the mathematical sciences. Read more about Solutions Canada.