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Nodes, edges, and the best career decision I ever made

by Jon Farrow Aug 24 / 20

A conversation with Mark Daley, CIFAR’s new Vice-President, Research

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Mark Daley is an interdisciplinary computer scientist with wide-ranging interests and strong
administrative and leadership skills. 

Along with a cross-appointed professorship in six departments at Western University (Computer Science; Biology; Epidemiology & Biostatistics; Electrical & Computer Engineering; Applied Mathematics; and Statistics & Actuarial Science), Daley chairs the board of Compute Ontario and serves on the Ontario Research Fund Advisory Board and the board of directors of ICES. He is also co-founder of CanCOVID, an expert network of Canadian COVID-19 researchers, clinical collaborators, and health-care professionals. He was Associate Vice-President (Research) of Western University from 2015–2019 and in 2019 was appointed Western University’s Special Advisor to the President on Data Strategy.

An energetic and creative leader, Daley will be responsible for ensuring CIFAR’s research programs continue to address the most important questions facing science and humanity while pushing the boundaries of research.

What drew you to CIFAR?

I believe in the values of the organization. My own journey as a researcher has been profoundly interdisciplinary, I derive a lot of joy from interdisciplinary research, and I think I’ve made some small, but good, contributions to the world. 

CIFAR manifests the importance of interdisciplinary research and basic research focused at the frontier, and has high standards for excellence and impact. That aligns perfectly with my own approach to research.


Tell us about your interdisciplinary research journey.

When I left high school, I thought I wanted to be a musician, so I studied music composition at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. But then I ran away to become a mathematician and computer scientist. 

I spent the first part of my career studying computation, the abstract notion of data or input coming in, undergoing a transformation, and going out. Most of my early papers are just theorem, proof, theorem, proof. They make for really dense reading. 

Then I got more interested in the idea of computation as a general process for looking at the world. Pretty soon, everywhere I looked I saw computation. I started looking at biological processes as if they were computations and modeling them that way. When I got tenure at Western University, my approach became even more fluid: I wanted to use my computer science skills to work with interesting people on interesting problems. That led me to great interdisciplinary projects like analyzing a corpus of medieval Gregorian chants to understand the evolution of melody with my colleague Dr. Kate Helsen.

The very best decision I made was emailing Mel Goodale.

I think that shift in approach was probably the second best decision I made in my career. The very best decision I made was emailing Mel Goodale.

Because the brain is an outstanding example of computation that evolved in nature, neuroscience was fascinating to me. Back in 2011, I emailed Mel, who would go on to be a co-director of CIFAR’s Brain, Mind & Consciousness program, about doing a master’s degree in neuroscience with my next sabbatical. I was just some crazy associate professor in computer science, and most senior professors would probably have quickly deleted that email unread. Mel emailed me back 15 minutes later, “Come up to my office right now.”

So he and Jody Culham ended up as my supervisors and I went back and did a master's degree in neuroscience. That was the best decision in my career because I met so many interesting people and learned so much. Neuroscience is already very interdisciplinary, so it connected me into a lot of other networks. 

So really, I got where I am sort of by accident, but with enthusiasm.


How do you see your role as Vice-President, Research at CIFAR?

I think of research as a complex network, and CIFAR is a hub node in that network that connects many different researchers, policy-makers, and industrial leaders.

I see my role as VP Research as an opportunity to serve the organization and the community, to facilitate and convene.

I will listen to the network, and ask where research is going, what the world needs, what we have the capacity to provide, and how we can connect the right people to do the right things. I see my role as VP Research as an opportunity to serve the organization and the community, to facilitate and convene.

Being VP Research, I’m a cog inside the machine that is CIFAR. All of my aspirations are for CIFAR as a whole because everything we do, we do together, as a team.

  

A big strength of CIFAR is the communities of excellent academics, policy-makers, and industrial leaders that we convene. What makes a good community?

To a mathematician like me, a network is a formal object with only two types of things: nodes and edges. Nodes in this case are people, and the edges are connections. The only things that constitute a network of this sort are the people and the connections between them. 

The strength of our impact depends entirely on getting the right nodes and connecting them in the right ways.

CIFAR’s role is to convene networks where those nodes are energetic, intelligent people with interesting things to contribute. Then we have to strengthen the edges, the relationships, between them. The strength of our impact depends entirely on getting the right nodes and connecting them in the right ways.

That said, each of our research programs is different. And one of the great strengths of CIFAR is that each program has autonomy. We empower each network to self-regulate and decide the best way to bring together and connect a diverse group of scholars. They set their own destiny, and we provide support and help them achieve it. 

  

What changes will be important to keep CIFAR at the leading edge of research?

I haven’t been on the job very long yet, so I have at least another few months of listening before I start offering my opinion on changes!

I would, though, like to highlight how delighted I am with CIFAR’s EDI plan. Equity and inclusion are fundamental moral imperatives for us all, and there is a growing body of scholarship that demonstrates that diverse teams are stronger than homogenous teams across domains ranging from physics research to corporate governance. I dream of a future where research is accessible to, and accessed by, all of humanity; an aspiration that is encoded right into the DNA of CIFAR.


If you could have dinner with any researcher, alive or dead, who would it be?

There are so many people I’d like to talk to, but if I have to just pick one, it would be Alan Turing. My love of research started in computability theory and Turing laid out the foundations of that field so clearly and so brilliantly. Then he went on in his later career to do all sorts of other things. For example, he looked at how differential equations can determine how patterns occur in biology. My worldview that everything looks like a computation was profoundly influenced by Turing's early writing.