Nathan Phelps

Sasha Madhavji

Nathan Pehlps

Universities boast lots of star athletes and brilliant academics, but how often do you find a student who is one in the same? In Nathan Phelps, the Department of Actuarial and Statistical Sciences at Western University has had the pleasure of nurturing a student who has blurred the indelible border between academic and athlete, with remarkable results. A gifted intellectual and a high-level athlete for the Western Varsity Volleyball program these past 4 years, Nathan is hailed by all who have had the privilege of teaching him — on and off the court. I had the opportunity to sit down with Nathan to talk about his last four years, his current research and where he’s heading.

I’m sure it’s crystal clear that Nathan is a dual threat. Nonetheless, when shining a spotlight on his academic history, it becomes apparent that Nathan really is a Swiss Army Knife in the classroom.

“I came here to learn physics.” But Nathan quickly developed an interest in programming and statistics, which led him to meeting professor Doug Woolford who introduced him to the new Data Science program.

“I thoroughly enjoyed his class. It absolutely played a large part in me deciding to complete my studies in data science.” Nathan is the first student to graduate from this program and his stellar academic achievement is underscored as a recipient of the Governor General Gold Medal for academics.

Dr. Woolford hired Nathan at the end of his undergraduate studies, as a summer research assistant, to study wildfires.

“I wouldn’t have picked wildfires myself, but I really wanted to work with Dr. Woolford. It’s turned out to be really fascinating research and an area that I would definitely be enthusiastic about looking into more in the future.”

Dr. Woolford’s research projects forest fire occurrences. Using statistics and machine learning (a fancy term for artificial intelligence), Nathan and his supervisor try to predict the highest risk areas for forest fires. Much of the effort is trying to understand the likelihood that one or more of a wide range of variables will contribute to a fire, on a particular day and location.

“There are elements you could probably guess, such as how hot, dry and humid it is, but then there are also important factors like nearby population density. One thing we’ve been looking at recently, is if there is a “holiday weekend” effect — when people are more likely to go camping and start fires. All of these components influence the probability of a wildfire.”

In the fall, when Nathan starts his masters, he will be working under the supervision of Dan Lizotte in the Department of Computer Science.

“Dr. Lizotte works in health care application. With him, I’m going to be working on how people with spinal cord injuries are treated. The general idea of how doctors and physiotherapists work is fairly well-known. They’ll have a series of observations about a patient and based on those observations, they’ll select a treatment. My thesis research will involve the use of reinforcement learning (a sub-field of machine learning) techniques to create a decision support system for doctors and physiotherapists. The system will use data to recommend optimal treatment.”

The future is bright for this recent alumni with a mammoth work ethic and scholastic versatility. As I left the room, I couldn’t help myself from asking one more question out of curiosity;

“Nathan, what was your favourite high school course?”

“Probably gym”

Sounds about right.

Nathan Phelps was interviewed by Henry Standage