Erik Demaine (BSc ’94) was a unique Dalhousie alumnus from the start: few students, after all, start their university studies at age 12 and complete their computer science degree at 14.
But Dr. Demaine doesn’t remember ever feeling like an abnormal student.
“I fondly recall hanging out with my fellow students in the computer science lounge, watching and adlibbing episodes of Star Trek on a TV with the volume muted,” he says.
Now, he’s been honoured with an induction into the Science Atlantic Hall of Fame as an Outstanding Student.
Science Atlantic (formerly APICS), celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has maintained a mission to “advance post-secondary science education and research in Atlantic Canada,” offering opportunities to students and support to educators through its annual conferences.
The conferences include lectures, symposiums and competitions such as the Computer Science Programming Competition, in which Dr. Demaine participated during his experience with Science Atlantic.
In his third (and final) year at Dalhousie, Dr. Demaine attended the 1994 Science Atlantic Computer Science Conference and partook in the joint Math Conference as well.
“I played a lot of video games as a kid, and one day asked my dad about how people made them,” says Dr. Demaine. “Then we started exploring computer programming together, which led me to computer science.”
Dr. Demaine’s latest computer science research returned him to the game controller as he co-authored a paper titled “Classic Nintendo Games are (NP-)Hard,” which proves that even a computer can’t earn a perfect score in Super Mario.
From prodigy to professor
After completing two graduate degrees at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Demaine became the youngest professor to ever teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2001. As an author of four books, collaborator on close to 300 articles and other publications, and the co-director of a short film, Dr. Demaine hasn’t slowed at all as a scholar.
He credits the beginnings of his extensive research career to the his undergraduate advisor, Srinivas “Srini” Sampalli, who encouraged him to write papers and give talks while at Dalhousie. Now, Dr. Demaine enjoys inspiring a new generation of young researchers.
“I like the challenge of finding the simplest possible way to explain a difficult solution, often leading me to think about simplifying the solution itself,” he says. “I also like the performance aspect of teaching—making material entertaining, funny and generally enjoyable.”
Dr. Demaine has an impressive artistic résumé as well. Using his research background in folding algorithms, he has produced sculptures that have been displayed at galleries including the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“My dad's background is in visual arts, and he saw the same kind of artistic creativity in the mathematics I was doing,” says Dr. Demaine. “So he started doing mathematics with me, and then we started designing and building sculpture together using that mathematics. So the two fields evolved pretty closely for me.”
This summer, Dr. Demaine will be teaching alongside his dad at the Pilchuck Glass School, offering a class on glass folding.
“The class is experimental, as we're still figuring out all the many ways to incorporate folding (and all our experience folding paper) into hand-blown glass,” says Dr. Demaine.
Programming the future
“Erik is a good example of the benefit of combining computer science and math,” says Art Sedgwick, who taught Dr. Demaine undergraduate courses in programming languages and algebra.
Dr. Sedgwick, a retired professor of computer science at Dalhousie, was also part of the recent set of honours bestowed by Science Atlantic. He was named to their Hall of Fame as an Outstanding Contributor, and the organization also chose to name its keynote lecture after Dr. Sedgwick, former chair of the Computer Science Committee of the organization.
When Dr. Sedgwick first became involved in Science Atlantic, computer science was still part of the math department at Dal. The Math Committee had an annual competition and computer science followed suit, with Dr. Sedgwick helping to create problems for a programming competition.
“Many faculty in computer science have limited opportunity to do programming and enjoy being involved in the Computer Science Programming Competition,” explains Dr. Sedgwick, adding that “the winners of the annual competitions are highly sought after by large multi-national companies like Google, IBM and Microsoft.”
He believes that Science Atlantic has provided students with the opportunity to collaborate with faculty on projects and present their research to an audience of peers.
“It gives our students exposure to a wider world and our grad programs a good place to recruit good students,” says Dr. Sedgwick.
David Tindall, retired professor of physics at Dalhousie, was also inducted by Science Atlantic as an Outstanding Contributor. He agrees that the annual conferences have been beneficial to Dalhousie students.
“By having a forum to present their work at the AUPAC [Atlantic Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Conference], our students have developed considerably over the years, particularly in their presentation skills.”
Dr. Tindall became a Science Atlantic Physics Committee member in the early 1980s, hoping to encourage student involvement.
“Without the guiding hand of [Science Atlantic],” he says, “there would have been no AUPAC and our undergraduate experience would have been much poorer for it.”
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