Killam Memorial Chair a leader in new dynamics between math and modern science

Mathematics professor drawn to UAlberta by opportunity to build a world-leading program.


(Edmonton) Yingfei Yi says his interest in the union of mathematics and modern science stems directly from the early post-secondary classical-mechanics education he received from Jilin University in China in the early 1980s.

“There was a period of time in China during which both mathematics and physics were considered the core of all science and engineering disciplines,” said Yi, who began his tenure in September as the University of Alberta’s seventh Killam Memorial Chair since the program was formed in 1967. “I liked both subjects, so I decided to choose a field relating to both for my graduate study at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s.”

This relatively new field of mathematics, known as dynamical systems, originated in the study of celestial mechanics, particularly the stability and long-term behaviour of celestial systems like our solar system. These dynamics concepts were later adopted into various mathematical subjects and extended to many other physical systems like chemical, electrical and mechanical systems, describing the movement of states of matter—particles, solids, fluids and gases. Recent development of dynamical systems theory is driven by new applications arising in areas like biology, ecology, life science, climate, environmental sciences, and information technology. For instance, Yi says, dynamical models are now used to analyze trends in how infectious diseases spread, mechanisms for global climate changes, factors for ecological and environmental stability, and complexity in biological, communication and social networks.

Yi adds that the U of A’s Department of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences is a leader in the main driving forces for the modern development of dynamical systems theory.

“I have already had many fruitful scientific exchanges with colleagues at the U of A,” said Yi, who left the only academic home he had ever known, the Georgia Institute of Technology, after 24 years. “By joining the department now, I feel that my own research would further benefit from several strong programs at the U of A relating to dynamics.”

“I view this move as a unique opportunity for working with my colleagues to develop a world-class program in dynamical systems at the U of A, and I am truly grateful to the university and the Killam Trusts for offering me with this great opportunity.”

Yi joins physicist Valeri Frolov as a U of A Killam Memorial Chair, and takes over the role from famed ecologist David Schindler, who held the position from 1989 until his retirement earlier this year.

Killam awards advance research that benefits society

The chairs, which are used to attract scholars to the U of A in perpetuity in the fields of science or engineering, are part of a suite of scholarships and academic prizes paid out annually by the Killam Trusts.

Before her death in 1965, Dorothy J. Killam, the wife of Canadian financier Izaak Walton Killam, who died a decade earlier, put in motion the couple’s plan to leave the bulk of their fortune to further post-secondary education in Canada.

The U of A was one just five institutions chosen as a beneficiary of the $400-million endowment.

"My purpose in establishing the Killam Trusts is to help in the building of Canada's future by encouraging advanced study,” wrote Dorothy in her will. “Thereby I hope, in some measure, to increase the scientific and scholastic attainments of Canadians, to develop and expand the work of Canadian universities, and to promote sympathetic understanding between Canadians and the peoples of other countries."

Since 1967, the endowments created by the Killam bequest have provided more than $96 million in scholarships and program funding to the U of A, with the value of the Killam endowments now surpassing $105 million.

“The Killam Trusts provide invaluable support to the university and its doctoral laureates, post-doctoral fellows and professors,” said Lorne Babiuk, vice-president (research). “Izaak and Dorothy Killam’s generous bequest supports scholarship across many disciplines and helps our researchers and trainees advance knowledge and discovery to benefit society. We are grateful for the Killams’ generosity and vision, and thank the trustees for their careful management of these funds and their ongoing commitment to the Killam legacy.”

Find out more about the Killam awards and past winners