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Once, Always | Pursuing a Ph.D. in Combinatorial Mathematics

At Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), it doesn’t matter how many years you attended one of our campuses. It will always remain a part of who you are. Today, the alumni experience at SCIS is one of diversity and connectivity.  

Our Once, Always series is an opportunity for alumni to gather and exchange advice and stories, while also serving as a testament to the success that lies ahead for our students. They remind us that Once a Dragon, Always a Dragon.  

Meet Mathieu Rundstrom, Class of SCIS Pudong 2016, a math magician who is currently chasing his Ph.D. in Combinatorial Mathematics at the University of Waterloo.  

So, what is Combinatorial Mathematics? Read on how Mathieu defines the intricacy of combinatorics. 


Hi! Introduce yourself.  

Hello! My name is Mathieu Rundstrom. I was born in Sweden, and lived in both my parents’ countries of origin, France and Sweden, before moving to China in tenth grade, where I attended the Pudong campus. I graduated in 2016, and hungry to experience a new part of the world, I set sail for Montreal to undertake my undergraduate studies at McGill University, majoring in mathematics and minoring in computer science. After that, I moved to Waterloo, Ontario, to pursue a master’s degree in combinatorics and optimization, which are branches of mathematics. This is where I am currently doing a Ph.D. Funnily enough, I remember doing a math competition organized by the University of Waterloo during my time at SCIS. Outside of academics, I enjoy being outdoors and am always on the lookout for an adventure.  

What is your fondest memory at SCIS?  

It is probably impossible for me to pinpoint a single fondest memory of my time at SCIS. However, several experiences stand out as exceptional, such as the three China trips I had the privilege of participating in, performing in the Elvis-themed musical production of "All Shook Up!", engaging in entertaining and stimulating conversations with the eminently approachable instructors, and of course, the camaraderie I shared with my peers in study halls or during various extracurricular activities. Thinking back, SCIS provided me with a wealth of opportunities to broaden my horizons and challenge myself beyond my comfort zone, for which I am eternally grateful. 


What are you most proud of achieving during your time at SCIS? 

Hailing from a small town in Sweden, relocating to Shanghai was a significant change in countless ways. I am probably the proudest of the fact that I was quickly able to integrate into the community at SCIS. This was admittedly made easier by all the welcoming people, and the fact that I sought out new things to try. I am not sure I can count on two hands the number of different extracurricular activities I was able to try out at SCIS during my three years there.  

What influenced you in high school to choose to study mathematics in higher education?  

I always liked mathematics, but that was not unique to this particular subject; I held a similar affinity for most school subjects. It wasn't until the latter half of high school that I knew I wanted to study mathematics at university. I have a great amount of gratitude towards my teachers Mr. Bilz and Mr. Newell; they were instrumental in fostering my passion for mathematics by organizing the math club, and consistently emphasizing the elegance of the subject. In particular, I have Mr. Newell to thank for where I am today, for accommodating my transition from standard level to higher level mathematics during the middle of eleventh grade, and for dedicating time outside of class to help me catch up, as well as to mentor me through my extended essay. Additionally, the YouTube channel “Numberphile”, which delves into the various facets of mathematics, many of which are not typically covered in a classroom setting, played a significant role in fueling my interest in the field. They continue to create insightful and engaging videos to date. 


What has been your biggest challenge since you graduated from SCIS and how did you overcome them? 

The greatest obstacle I have encountered since my graduation from SCIS was the pandemic. I had just relocated to Waterloo when I learned that almost all face-to-face engagements were canceled for the entire year. The isolation and mental strain were quite tough, particularly as I was someone without a pre-existing social network in the area. It was by far the most trying year of my life. Nevertheless, I was able to find some semblance of sanity, by staying in touch with friends from McGill and SCIS virtually, and by spending time outside. Eventually, the following year, in-person activities resumed, and I had the chance of befriending many brilliant individuals. 

Can you tell us more about combinatorics? How does it apply to real life?  

Combinatorics is the area of mathematics concerned with the study of discrete structures. It encompasses a diverse array of problems, such as devising a class schedule that minimizes scheduling conflicts and determining the optimal route between two points, akin to those provided by Google Maps. Many branches of science, including cryptography and computer science, have intricate connections with combinatorics. It is a relatively nascent subdiscipline of mathematics that I find incredibly captivating. My master's thesis delved into the utilization of combinatorial techniques to optimize the methodologies employed in a particular type of cranial surgery. 


After pursuing your Ph.D., what is your next plan?  

I am not entirely sure what I will do after my Ph.D., but most likely I will work with mathematics in some capacity, either in academia or in industry. Or at least so I hope! 


Anything you’d like to share with current seniors at SCIS?  

To the current seniors at SCIS, my advice to you is to not be afraid to take risks and explore different fields and interests. By taking risks and stepping out of your comfort zone, you will learn about the world and perhaps more importantly about yourself. If you have the opportunity to go on an exchange at your university, do it! I went to Hong Kong and had an amazing experience. Keep an open mind, and don't be discouraged if you encounter obstacles along the way.  


SCIS. Once a Dragon, Always a Dragon.   

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