Unique Scientist: Dr. Daniel Gillis

Time to meet Dr. Daniel Gillis (He/him)! Dr. Gillis is an Associate Professor at the University of Guelph in Canada where his group develop new statistical and computer science methods to understand risks affecting people and animals!

What kind of scientist are you?
As an Associate Prof in the School of Computer Science, I teach Data Science and Software Design, and I get to work with an awesome interdisciplinary team of students, colleagues, and community partners. We develop new statistical and computer science methods to understand risks affecting people and animals. We build software for not-for-profits and remote communities. We evaluate new discipline-agnostic methods to teach interdisciplinary teams of students how to work together to solve broad social challenges like hunger, food waste, and sustainability. And we evaluate new tools to bridge the digital divide in Canada. My job takes me and my students all over the world, and I often can’t believe I get paid to have this much fun.

What made you want to become a scientist?
When I was younger I loved mathematics and would stay up at night thinking about number patterns. I loved geology and dinosaurs and anything that was science-y. I devoured books on science and collected animal trading cards (because animal trading cards are WAY better than sports trading cards). I’d watch the Nature of Things with my parents. I’d ask for microscopes and science books and rock tumblers for Christmas. However, it wasn’t until I was older that I realized I could make a living and a difference with science. And now I have the best job in the world!

“I’m not sure if knowing would have made a difference to me, but I do know that there are students out there today who need to see themselves in science.”

Dr. Daniel Gillis

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
Despite my love of science, I always wanted to be an animator. I took a few summer courses when I was in high school, and figured that I’d go to university to study computer science because computer animation was just getting started at that time. However, the siren song of math was too strong to resist and I eventually found myself finishing my MSc in Mathematics and my PhD in Statistics while working with government agencies, not-for-profits, industry, and academics across the country. After my PhD, I somehow found my way back to computer science when I became part of the faculty of the School of Computer Science. The rest they say is history! However, during my training, I had no idea if any of my professors were gay. I’m not sure if knowing would have made a difference to me, but I do know that there are students out there today who need to see themselves in science.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I wanderlust constantly, but that’s okay because I travel a lot for work and for fun. So much so, that my colleagues, friends, and family assume that I’m away more than they assume that I’m home, and they’ve asked more than once that I call when I am visiting Guelph [note: I live in Guelph]. They also assume that I’m going to do something adventurous when I travel – as I often come home with stories of new mountains climbed, bungee jumping and skydiving adventures with students, or eating things like deep-fried tarantulas (delish), snakes (great), bats (meh), grilled silkworm pupae (amazing), or starfish (definitely not my thing).

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
We need to break down disciplinary walls and spend more time teaching our students how to work together on big problems. The challenges we face – such as climate change, poverty, hunger, energy conservation, etc. – are all big challenges, and no single discipline is going to solve them. So we need to teach our students how to be interdisciplinary AND to give them opportunities to take courses that are truly interdisciplinary. We should have regular classes where (for example) philosophy, art, math, computer science, biology, international development, business, and agriculture students work together to solve a big problem. The goal isn’t to make each student an expert in each discipline, but to provide them with the skills and opportunities to collaboratively bring their disciplinary training to the table. We’ve tested this at my university, and the results are incredible!

“We need to break down disciplinary walls and spend more time teaching our students how to work together on big problems.”

Dr. Daniel Gillis

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
As an undergraduate and graduate student, I learned so much from my instructors – Dr. Gerarda Darlington, Dr. Pal Fischer, and Dr. Herb Kunze, to name a few. They pushed me to be a better person, and they provided me with an example of the type of academic I strive to be. As an Associate Professor, I am constantly inspired by the students who I get to work with. They challenge me daily, and I have learned so much from them. Their energy, their willingness to dive into problems to help make our community and world a better place, is awesome.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
I found out that my next sabbatical (6 years from now) will start shortly after I turn 50, and shortly after I pay off my mortgage – so I’ve started planning a year-long around the world adventure! Because I want to see ALL THE COUNTRIES! Other than that, I learned how to mud a wall because I’m doing renovations in my kitchen. 🙂

#QueerInSTEM

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