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posted on July 27, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
Two Stories about Roger Donaldson

Two Stories about Roger Donaldson

undergraduate programs,
especially highly interactive ones like
Science One, invite students to live
near the edges of their experience, where
knowledge is uncertain and under-
standing, at the level students
and faculty come to expect,
is elusive.

While I
taught in Science One,
the teaching team spent a lot of time
talking about individual students and working
with each other in our work with them.
Ganging up on them, if you will. 

A big benefit
of true, real-time team teaching
is that when one of us was “up”, tending to
the business of our discipline, the rest of us were
paying attention. We paid attention to students and
to each other, and paying attention to each other
sometimes generated fascinating
discussions, either on the
spot or later.

“What in the
world were you trying to
accomplish when you did XYZ
one would ask. It wasn’t always easy
to answer or even remember doing XYZ,
but because
we trusted each other and
knew it would help, we gave the best answers
we could come up with. Those conversations
took us to our own edges and extended
them even as we helped students
extend theirs.

We observed
individuals and thought
about what we saw, each of us in
our own way.  We noticed patterns
in their questioning, for example, and
talked about them in our weekly planning
meetings.  “
What do you think Sally really
wanted to know when she asked PQR in
class today? Your response seemed
right to me but it went right
over her head.
I think
something might
be going on.”


One day,
early in the third year
of Science One, Director Julyet
Benbasat told me with a note of concern
in her voice that I’d better talk to Roger. Her
feeling for Roger was clear in her face,
and it
led to a series of events that had everything to do
with living on the edge. 
What follows is about one
student, Roger Donaldson, but similar scenarios
unfolded with others in Sc1
through every
year and a key was helping each other
come to know the individuals
we were working with.

“Roger doesn’t think
he can do well in biology”, she
said.  He’s worried it’s too hard for him
and I encouraged him to talk
with you about it.”

“What’s so hard about biology?”

“I know, I know.
I tried to reassure him
but he wouldn’t listen to me
about it.  But I’m just a chemical
engineer and he knows it.  He
needs to talk to you and
he knows that too.”

That was
strange for me to hear. I
couldn’t imagine it. How could he think
biology is hard? He was a math and physics
whiz, had competed internationally in them in high
school, grew up in an academic family, everything was
interesting to him, he loved complex arguments and
listened well and respectfully. 
Roger rarely spoke
until he had something to say, but everyone
listened when he did and what he said
was usually  interesting and
important to everyone.

Day after
day in class, Roger sat
right in front of me with his hat on
backwards, offering excellent opportunities
to observe, first hand, his engagement in the
action.  As far as I could tell, he was fully
and deeply involved, continuously, in
everything that happened
in the room.

His intelligence
and interest were palpable and
his agility of mind was amazing.  When
professors made mistakes in class, which
happens often, Roger usually caught and
corrected them as they happened,
before anyone else noticed.

With all
that in mind, it seemed
strange to me for Roger to think
he couldn’t do biology.  I thought about it
overnight but didn’t approach him the next

morning.  When I entered Julyet’s office
that afternoon, Roger was standing
at her desk talking with her. 

I waited
silently at the door and
Roger didn’t notice me there. As
their conversation drew to a close,
Roger backed away from Julyet’s
desk and didn’t turn around or
notice me until he was
nearly to me.

“Hi, Roger!”
I said, brightly, at nearly
point-blank range, and turned
sideways in the doorway to let him by.
He crab-walked into the narrow gap and
the closer he got the slower he moved
we were stuck, bellybutton to
bellybutton, looking each
other in the eye.

After a few
moments of uncomfortable
silence, Roger said he
’d like to talk with
me, and “Is
there a time when we could
I said “Sure, how about now?”
nd so we talked, right there in
Julyet’s doorway.

“I had a
dream about you”, he began,
“We were in a classroom, you asked me a
question I couldn’t answer, and it
bothered me
because I should have been able to.  It wasn’t just
that I just didn’t know some little fact, either. You
don’t ask questions like that.  It was that I didn’t
understand.  I just didn’t get it.  I couldn’t.
I didn’t know how to think about it.
I got the horrible feeling I
couldn’t do biology.”

“What’s hard about biology, Roger?”,
I replied, after letting his
dream soak in a while.

“Well, physics
and mathematics are
easy because you can solve them.
But how can you solve biology?  There
are too many systems. 
Too many kinds of
systems, and so many variables you can never be
certain how they relate to each other.  They’re
too complex. I can’t do it. I don’t know
how to think about it. I don’t
know what to do.’

After letting
this soak in, I said
“Aw, Roger.  Biology’s not
Do you think they would
have let me be a biologist if
biology was hard?”

That stopped
him.  It stumped him.
He stood there in the doorway
with me for a while, scratching his head,
figuratively, then g
radually lightened, bright-
ened, grinned, and, trying not to agree too
strongly with my assessment of my own
capability, said  ‘T
hanks!’, and
crab-walked out into
the hall.

That was
the last anyone heard
about Roger’s disability in biology.
He embraced complexity and uncertainty,
embraced his monumental ignorance of the
living world, and got on
with his work
in Science One. 
That was in the first
2 or 3 weeks of his university

A lot happened
in Roger’s life before Thanksgiving,
and more before Christmas.  On the Christmas
exam I asked a doozie of a question, with no hints
or warnings to help anyone prepare.  Under
the heading “Science” on the Biology
exam, I asked students to

“discuss the
importance of imagination,
invention, and creativity in science and
how how they function in scientific discovery.
Use examples from any scientific discipline.
Include insights into how your own
creativity has aided or hindered
you in Science One.”

Here is what
Roger wrote, for about 10%
of credit on a 2-hour exam. I haven’t
edited what he wrote, other than
to format it as verse.

“Scientific thinking is an
art in making associations between
We take what we know (or in many
cases, assume to be true), and associate ideas in
some new way. 
Any new abstraction, by
definition, is a creative form and
should be celebrated
as such.”

attempt in a thought experi-
ment to ride a light beam created
contradictions that evolved to become
the Special Theory of Relativity.  But
abstractions are not limited by
any means to the world’s
greatest minds.”  

“Even my own
growing scientific mind
is being shaped by creative connec-
Through a study of shape, volume,
and surface area, I connected the mass of a
tree to the cross sectional area of its roots and
showed that a tree is bounded by a maximum
Further abstracting, this leads to
greater conclusions that trade-offs
exist everywhere in nature and
even in the most complex
systems such optimiz-
ations show why
the world is
as it is.”

abstractions, I have also
discovered hindering assumptions.
My tree example does not account for flexi-
bility of materials or specific root absorption
rates. These depend on unknown quantities.
Thus I have also learned that abstractions
must be taken in the context of our
ignorance, lest they
lead us astray

You can read the other
Roger story in Story about Barry McBride.
and listen to both Roger stories in my talk
Making Magic Together.

graduating from UBC,
Roger completed a PhD in
mathematics at Cal Tech.  Since then,
he’s been a mathematical and computing
consultant, Midvale Applied Mathematics.
He works on the interface between math,
engineering, and computer science,
much of it relating to computer-
based intelligence.

His first contract
was to build a vision system
for an automatic DNA sequencing
machine.  A long-standing interest of
Roger’s is automatic characterization of
images and video to enable searching vast
repositories. He also supervises UBC students
in these areas. One student project was to
build mathematical models to explain
why some musical artists, like Beet-
hoven and the Beatles, are so
much more popular
than others.

The photo
of Roger Donaldson
was taken several years ago in
France by
Mark MacLean, one of
Roger’s mathematics professors
in Science One.

Edited May 2022.

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