My new job

Tags: PhD 

A quick celebration/reflection post about being appointed as an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, at the University of Toronto.

A memory

I have a memory from about the age of eight. I’m sitting in the den in our little house on a dead-end street in Brantford1 and thinking about what I want to do when I grow up. I think about being a professor and how that would be pretty wonderful. I’m not sure I knew what they really did, but thought it involved being very clever, and always learning, and sharing what you’d learned, and probably wearing a lot of tweed. As someone who at the same age had wanted the aesthetic of their bedroom to be “Victorian gentleman’s study”, and who had parents who graciously let me pick my comforter based on it looking most like a brocade smoking jacket, the tweed probably mattered more than you’d think.

The most vivid part of this memory, though, is completely and utterly dismissing it as ever being possible for me. Somehow I thought my other career plan of being a rockstar by night, librarian by day was far more realistic.

Well 8-year-old Liza, do I have news for you! January 1st, 2020 I (or maybe we? what’s appropriate when gleefully addressing your younger self?) start as an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in the Department of Statistical Sciences at the University of Toronto.

This is an absolute dream role for me and I want to try to celebrate some of the many people I’m grateful for and answer some questions my younger self might have.


I am so incredibly grateful for this opportunity, and for all the people who have been part of the journey so far, and who will feature in the adventures to come. I had wanted to write a gratefulness CV of sorts, but it started getting very, very, very long, so a very, very, very incomplete list of gratefulness ensues. (It was also mostly written late at night!)

  • Whānau. This post would be longer than my thesis if I began to explain.
  • Friends. Whether getting me through Honours with chocolate and back rubs, telling me about Wittgenstein and words, working together in charities, flatting together, being the best pep talk giver or all the other myriad things my friends do, I am so grateful for these people who inspire me to be better, or sometimes failing that make me laugh my arse off.
  • Steven, I wouldn’t be brave enough to do this without you.

First steps

  • Brenda Skipper and Larry Speakman for writing me great references when I moved from Canada to Aotearoa New Zealand. Without them I probably wouldn’t have got to join the extension class at Te Awamutu College.
  • Te Awamutu College for being an incredibly nurturing place to spend my teenage years. Opportunities to grow not just academically, but as a leader, a public speaker, and a very uncoordinated Kapa Haka member have all been so important in who I am and where I am now. I’m so grateful for the friends I made there, my fellow Head Students, and all the teachers/instructors I had there, (like Keith Bain, Gayle Clements, Kathleen Westhead, Rosemary Brandon, David Prout, Dave Smith, Michelle Devlin, Tanya Prout, Vanessa Norton-Brown, Neil Bauernfeind, Karen Dowle, Wayne Carter, Theresa Guarino, Vanita Sahay, George Brooks, Olga Kravchenko, Barry Cullen and so many more - I wrote this quite late at night and know I’m missing lots of people :( ), and many who never had me as a student but who were often involved with making awesome extracurricular stuff happen like Pauline Smith, Denise Kahui and Andrea Soanes. Also incredible members of staff like Trish Ure, Katrina Alquist, Clare Lincoln, Janet Burgoyne-Thomas and Tracy Branje. Kia kaha!
  • Bill Crombie, of course, gets a special mention as my high school stats teacher, and for being why I even did a stats class at university!
  • Bob Hollinshead for being such a supportive dean and music teacher and saying anyone could learn to sing, even though I don’t think you said it as much after my 2nd or 3rd school musical…
  • Tony Membery for being an incredible principal who I learned so much from as a Head Student (and as his English student! Though bad grammar or spelling in this post are my fault, and mine alone).
  • Dave Owen, Donna Dyet, Cathy Plowright, the Kainga Aroha team and everyone who makes Te Awamutu such a special place.

At the University of Auckland

  • Anna Fergusson for being an incredible mentor, friend and collaborator. And someone I can chat stats ed with for hours, non-stop. Anna has been such a positive and powerful force in improving all aspects of my teaching practice. It is impossible to overstate how amazing, competent, kind and giving she is as a person, an educator and a researcher.
  • Heti Afimeimounga and Susan Wingfield for collaborating on the Innovation in Teaching and Learning SEED grant (with Anna’s leadership) and the UniBound programme. Your support and expertise as Tuakana have been so wonderful.
  • The Stats 10x teaching team for being passionate and supportive colleagues who helped me learn and grow and who I always enjoy spending time with.
  • James Curran and Ilze Ziedins who, respectively, as HoDs have been incredible in their support of me personally and their leadership of our department. Ilze was my first stats lecturer and the reason I did more stats classes, as well as being one of my references for this job. And without James approving funding for my trip to ICOTS in Kyoto I might not be writing this now at all.
  • Joei Mudaliar for her incredible competence and warmth!
  • Barry Milne and Alan Lee as my wonderful supervisors, and Chris Wild for providing supervision for my last few months because Alan is officially retired, as well as being a reference for this job.
  • EPS*Lalaga, my amazing sisters, this research project and your friendships were the highlight of my 2018.
  • The COMPASS whānau, Barry, Martin, Steph, Nichola, Roy, Kevin, Eileen, Cinnamon, Lara, Olivia, Tong, Swen, Justin, Jinfeng, Doney, Shaun, Stephen, Natalia - everyone who is and has been part of this team during my time here - I’m so lucky to have found you and to call this research group home.
  • The Department of Statistics for being an incredible place to learn and work. I brag about the culture here for good reason.
  • The University of Auckland for the generous amount of scholarship money they’ve supported me with over the years.
  • My students for being the reason I love teaching and for taking their statistical knowledge out in the world and doing good stuff with it. Come do exchanges to U of T!

Outside school

  • P3 Foundation and all the dedicated and inspiring young people I got to know and work alongside there.
  • Teach First NZ and the Maritime Museum for being awesome places to work during uni, with lots of autonomy, event planning and dress-up.
  • Keith Ng for believing in me as a statistical communicator and being the magical kind of coffee date companion that always makes me feel more invigorated and excited.
  • Data Embassy clients for providing fascinating projects. Especially Seren Wilson and the NZAGE for over 4 years of surveys together.

At U of T / in Canada

  • Alison Gibbs for being so generous with her time throughout this process, and for having lunch with me in Kyoto in July last year.
  • Nathan Taback for also having lunch with me back in Kyoto, meeting Nathan and Alison and hearing about their paths and work were why I wanted to apply for this role. Thanks also to Nathan for being a fantastic pretend student during my teaching demonstration.
  • Wesley Burr for being a generally awesome human being and for being generous and invaluable in his advice and support.
  • Nathalie Moon for going back to get stuff I’d left in her office MORE THAN ONCE while I was having a technology meltdown before my teaching demonstration.
  • Monica Alexander and Dan Simpson for executing the first phases of the Antipodean takeover of the department.
  • Radu Craiu and the rest of hiring committee for being so welcoming during my visit, answering a million questions and for hiring me!

Questions from 8-year-old Liza

Q: So, you’re an assistant to a professor?
A: Nooooo, I am the professor! Just, you know, a baby one.

Q: But what does “Teaching Stream” mean?
A: It means the role focusses on teaching, and that my research is research about teaching. No more counting dead people after my PhD is submitted. I’m hoping to look at things like how we support, engage and retain indigenous students in statistics, and how we improve students’ statistical collaboration and computation skills. U of T is one of the few universities that have professorial ranks for teaching focussed roles. It’s really exciting that there is this level of emphasis on honouring teaching and learning!

Q: When are you moving?
A: Looks like December, 2019. And guess what? I have an awesome partner and he’s coming too. (We talk to boys now and don’t just narrate their antics from across the softball pitch, à la David Attenborough.)

Q: Do you still love building Ikea furniture and will therefore furnish your entire house that way?
A: Duh. That’s a core and immutable feature of my/our personality.

Q: Don’t you have to finish your PhD first?
A: Yep, working on that! Should be middle of this year.

Q: So, are you totally procrastinating by writing this post?
A: …

Q: No, wait, final question! Are knitted ponchos the timeless fashion icon I declared they would be?!?
A: NO. Absolutely not. How did you ever think that? This may be the thing we are most wrong about, ever.

1Brantford, Ontario, Canada is the town I was born in. Long before I was born it was a bustling hub because it was on a canal, but once trains got popular it didn’t do so well. Part of the downtown was used to film a boarded up zombie town in the movie Silent Hill. You can check out some photos here. Brantford is also known for being the birthplace of hockey player Wayne Gretzky and has the Bell Homestead where Alexander Graham Bell hung out and did some pretty cool stuff, and where I once dressed up as a 1960s switchboard operator.

Switchboard photo from:

Written on March 14, 2019

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