Convocation speech by Fan Chung Graham at Waterloo, October 20, 2017

Chancellor Jenkins, distinguished faculty, guests, families and most important of all, you, graduating students.

It is a rare honor for me to receive this honorary degree from the great University of Waterloo. I am particularly grateful because in my research area -- discrete mathematics -- the University of Waterloo has the strongest faculty in the world. Indeed I am humbled to be selected to speak to you today.

First, let me say congratulations! You have achieved a milestone and are about to start a new phase of your life. At this new beginning, I am delighted to have this opportunity to offer a few words of advice and share some of my stories.

I grew up in Kaohsiung, a southern city in Taiwan. Taiwan rhymes with Taiphoon because the island has frequent visits of hurricanes. I was lucky to enjoy peace and prosperity during my growing up years while this was not the case for my parents and their parents. After high school when I faced the choice of majors, my father gave me his advice, "Mathematics is the foundation of science. If you are good at math, you can do anything. You can easily switch to other areas later if needed."

His words still ring true. At my first job at the Math Center of Bell Labs, my research in graph theory easily branched out to computer science and communications. Over the years, I worked on various graph problems, some of which are connected to the pure side, such as number theory, spectral geometry. Some graph problems are connected to the applied side such as optimization, computation, physics and chemistry. In recent years many interesting problems arise in the analysis of information networks and search algorithms. Although the topics might sound different, the mathematics underneath are just the same. It turns out that I never need to switch to other areas after all.

One phrase that we often hear is "to do what you love, and love what you do". There are many good reasons behind this saying. The more you love what you do, the more likely you will do it well. If your work is like play, you will wake up in the morning happily looking forward to playing. You have a long career of many, many happy years in front of you. After saying this, let us face the fact. In this world of reality, not everyone is doing what they love. How do we increase the chance to be among the few to be able to do what we love to do?

A somewhat surprising answer that I am about to give you is "to be lucky". I have met some people who seem to be very lucky. In fact some of them seem to be always lucky. So I try to analyze why some people are luckier than others. Here is what I can report.
The live stream of this speech can be found at about 30 minutes into the convocation.
Links to the website of Waterloo.