Career Profile – Richard Fleming

Degree: B.Sc. Mathematics/Physics
Position: Senior Research Scientist
Company: Great Lakes Forestry Centre, Natural Resources Canada

With a unique background in mathematics, physics, and ecology, Richard Fleming takes mathematics out of the classroom and into the great outdoors. Richard is a senior research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, a division of Natural Resources Canada. Working out of the Great Lakes Forest Research Centre in Sault St. Marie, Ontario, Richard uses mathematical and statistical models to examine forest insect outbreak systems. Insects can be destructive to Canadian forests, so Richard works to predict their behavior. The distribution of insect systems can depend largely on climate, so Richard examines the likely responses of insect outbreak systems to climatic change, including global warming. He also examines the interactions of these outbreak systems with forest fires, as the likelihood of forest fires often increases after an insect outbreak.

The mathematical models Richard uses range from simple analytic differential equation models to complex spatially explicit computer simulations. His background in math allows him to approach problems from a different viewpoint than his colleagues with a biological sciences background. Richard feels this makes him a valuable member of his research team, as it allows him “to provide unique insights and in this way contribute to comprehensive team approaches to problem solution.”

Richard’s groundbreaking work has led him to become a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its efforts to further public knowledge in this area.

Richard’s interest in mathematics developed as a direct result of his enjoyment of puzzles as a child. “At high school, math problems usually seemed like doing puzzles, so I found them relatively enjoyable,” he says. Richard’s appreciation of math increased when he began taking physics classes, where math was used to construct models of real world physical phenomenon. Richard notes, “These math models were solved like puzzles to make predictions applicable to the real world.”

Richard graduated from Trent University with a joint major BSc in mathematics and physics. A post-graduation stint in Europe led him to develop an interest in ecology. “I hoped to be able to contribute to improving society’s understanding, appreciation and management of ecological systems,” says Richard. This desire led him to complete a PhD at UBC in the application of math to ecological systems, cementing his specialization in the application of math to real world problems.