UBC Reports
November 14, 1996

Math/chemistry grad not big on numbers

by Charles Ker
Staff writer

Vera Hoffman has an unusual accent--Canadianized Zimbabwean with a hint of Irish.

Even more unusual than Hoffman's accent was her choice of degree programs: a combined honours in math and chemistry.

Last summer, the young UBC scientist took off to Cork, Ireland where she tended bar at The Thirsty Scholar--the perfect tonic for a particularly trying third year of study on Point Grey.

"Third year was hell because I was basically taking six honours courses and it seemed as though my whole life revolved around writing lab reports and math assignments," she said. "I didn't want to come back."

But Hoffman did return to UBC and this fall becomes the only student in the last five years to graduate with a math/chemistry combination.

"For certain, the program she chose is exceptionally challenging and it is obvious that very few, if any, care to meet the challenge," said David Holm, associate dean of science.

The 23-year-old came to UBC from Kadoma, a small town 150 kilometres southwest of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. After distinguishing herself in science at high school, Hoffman was approached by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to apply for a Canadian scholarship.

When it came to Canada, Hoffman confides that she was "completely clueless."

Faced with a list of universities, she admits that climate was a determining factor in her choice of UBC.

Hoffman initially wanted to study biochemistry but soon switched to chemistry and math after first year because, as she puts it, "in chemistry you get to mix things together and see them change colour...it's very exciting."

As for mathematics, Hoffman may be good with numbers but that doesn't mean she has to like them.

"Most people who aren't in math don't realize that real mathematicians don't deal with numbers," she said. "The only really important numbers are one, zero and infinity."

She started dabbling in numbers at the age of 10, sorting cheques in numerical order for her parents' financial consulting business. By 16 she was doing a range of accountancy tasks for extra pocket money.

But it is with abstract math--the idea behind a problem--where her true interest lies.

Hoffman's undergraduate thesis deals with the electronic spectra of highly symmetric molecules, or, in her words, "shining light through a molecule and predicting what comes out the other side." The object of Hoffman's thesis, the buckminster-fullerene carbon molecule, was the discovery of this year's Nobel Laureate in chemistry, Sir Harry Kroto.

Hoffman says her thesis concerns a physical problem which scientists have been unable to solve using numerical methods.

"If you try to hang onto numbers it just confuses you because they end up doing the opposite to what you expect," she said.

Hoffman's immediate plans are to drive with her boyfriend from Vancouver to Newfoundland via the Grand Canyon and Great Lakes. In early December, she plans to return to UBC and finish a project she spearheaded for the Math Club. Under her stewardship, proceeds from the sale of solutions to old math exams will go towards scholarships for an honours and majors math student entering fourth year.

Hoffman says that while her time at UBC has been fulfilling, she isn't ready just yet to jump straight into graduate work. For the moment, she has her sights set on returning to Zimbabwe, searching for a job and enjoying her first Christmas home in five years.