Portrait of professor Leah Keshet
February 12, 2020
4 mins read

Prof Portrait: Leah Keshet

Prof Portraits

I first knew of Prof Leah Edelstein-Keshet because I used, for MATH 102 and MATH 103, her online open-resource textbooks, and came across many a time her name on the Mathematics Department’s Wiki pages.

Later, the summer after first year, I finally met Prof Keshet in person when I helped to write and edit problem sets for incoming MATH 102 students.

I’ve gotten to know Prof Keshet—beyond her position as a professor in the Mathematics Department—as a cheerful, kind, and warm role model. She’s one of those profs around whom I am comfortable, from the outset, being the chatty, sassy self I am around my friends—so of course, I reached out to her for this series!

Math with a biological twist

Prof Keshet received her B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Mathematics at Dalhousie University, and returned to Israel, her native land, to complete her doctorate in Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The reason that Prof Keshet decided on pursuing mathematical biology came from, as she admits, “a great deal of parental influence”—her father was a mathematician and her mother was a biologist.

Both of her parents, especially her dad, encouraged her to go into math. “He was more the type that viewed math almost like a religion. I was an only child, so I got to get all my dad’s influence: ‘Thou shalt go into math.’

“I didn’t realize that people could do something else. I know it sounds ridiculous, but when you are raised in a certain environment, you don’t realize that there's a world outside of science and the things you can do—until much later. Maybe if I’d grown up in a family of poets or writers, I might’ve liked that even better, I don't know.”

Regardless, Prof Keshet enjoyed mathematics and struck out a path that combined mathematics and biology. She went on to serve, in 1995, as the first woman President of the Society for Mathematical Biology—and has been teaching mathematics, applied to life sciences, at UBC for over 30 years (since 1989!). 

The journey wasn’t always smooth sailing, but, as Prof Keshet says, that was okay. When she was a first-year undergrad, she took what would be the equivalent of UBC’s Honours Math. “It was very foreign, and I told my father, who was then helping me, that I was stuck and didn’t know what was happening. He helped explain it to me, and I got it.

“I said, ‘Dad, isn’t it bad that I didn't get this on my own?’ His advice was ‘No, look, sometimes in the beginning, you need help, and it might just be that for the first while as you get yourself into it, you’re going to need a lot of help—but that’s okay. Eventually, you’ll be able to walk on your own; just keep going.’ I think that’s one of the best pieces of advice: Don't give up, just keep going...and it is okay to get a little help once in a while.

Contributions to science

Beyond her current role as the lecturer for MATH 563 (Modelling of Cell-Scale Biology), Prof Keshet also carries on research with students and post-docs, writes and reviews scholarly papers, writes grant proposals, and continues to pore over the fine liminal space between mathematics and the life sciences.

Prof Keshet has studied—to name a few topics—mechanisms for Alzheimer's disease and Type I (autoimmune) diabetes, as well as patterns and waves in biochemical systems. She’s also looked at how the individuals in a flock/swarm affect the overall group’s shape and the group’s direction of movement.

Currently, Prof Keshet is analyzing cell migration and morphology—topics related to her past work. “The interesting thing about math is that it allows you to make the correspondence between things that look completely different,” she says.

As a mathematician, Prof Keshet’s default approach to solving these mind-boggling questions is by using paper and pencil, as well as the simplest of mathematical models—just as we might with first-year Calculus problems—before running simulations and considering more detailed models.

Math shows that patterns thrive in nature (e.g. pi, Euler’s number, the Fibonacci sequence) and suggests that, as Carl Jung precisely worded, “in all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder there is order.” Elegant, ain’t it?

4 tips that you can use

Here are some great pieces of advice Prof Keshet has for you:

1. Go to office hours

“It’s good to just go and talk, or go with a group and hear what other students are asking, and do it throughout the term. Don’t wait until there are tests, or wait until the final.”

2. Stay patient (try your best!)

“Math forces you to not memorize but think logically. You might get frustrated if you're just trying to brute-force do something. Read the problem very carefully to understand what's being asked. Ask yourself, ‘Where am I trying to get to? Am I making progress?’ Try different approaches.”

3. Practice lots ahead of time

“Go back to past homework and redo it, so that you can pick up speed and make it fresh in your mind. Don’t study right before the exam for concepts you’ve never mastered. Learn the concepts gradually during the term and have time to practice things that were difficult.” 

4. Piece different concepts together

Prof Keshet reveals how exams work for MATH 102/103: The instructors take problems over the term and combine them into questions with many different concepts. “Because when you’re learning it, you're practicing one concept at a time, so they're going to take a bit from this and that and make it up into a long question. Go over, remind yourself of what you had trouble with.”

Get to know profs around you—they can offer you new perspectives and valuable advice, beyond just the course that brought you together. 

Quick trivia fact: Prof Keshet was actually the prof who designed (and brought the biological applications into) MATH 102/103—which we now know as Differential/Integral Calculus with Applications to the Life Sciences!

Professor Keshet writing on the whiteboard