James Currie has been with the University of Winnipeg since 1988, when he was 26. He started his career as an assistant professor in mathematics and statistics, and his area of research is in combinatorics of words.
“If you look at a computer, you might have a string of zeros and ones, and I’d call that a word,” he says. “People study the way that you take words and operate on them, and you glue them together and slice them and dice them, and you sort of prove how hard it is to search for patterns in words.”
For example, using combinatorics of words can help when looking at how files are compressed, like photo files. This can also be applied to genetics and studying the genome for patterns in DNA.
“I’ve done some practical things, too. I’ve helped Canadian Forces figure out a model for scheduling search-and-rescue helicopters. Someone contracted with me to see how good their password scheme was,” Curries says
“With Jeff Babb (an associate professor in the mathematics and statistics department), … we did some farm and food safety. Like how do you do the statistics on eggs? How many eggs do you have to test to be confident that you have no problems?”
His new role at the university is provost and vice-president of academics, to which he was appointed on Jan. 1. He says he still gets to do research and teach, but this role mostly focuses on the administration side of the university.
“The funny thing is, academics always say, and the correct thing to say is ‘oh I hate administration, I’m never going to do administration, I just care about teaching,’” he says. “Or ‘I just care about research and teaching and research.’ But without administration, those things can’t happen.”
Currie says throughout his experiences of being the chair of the mathematics department and the dean of science, he was able to get a vision for the whole university, rather than just one department.
“One of the things, I like to say with the University of Winnipeg is it’s kind of like the Vinyl Café. We may not be big, but we’re small,” he says. “So with this university, there’s often opportunity to know what’s happening in other parts of the institution.”
What was your worst grade in university? The thing is, if you become a professor, you (were) probably a good student, and so I think my worst grade was in homological algebra. And I always kind of felt like I got a D in it, but I looked it up, and it was a C. But if you’re going to be a professor, a C feels like
a D. I did not like that part of mathematical courses.