Western University, Department of Communication & Public Affairs
Westminster Hall, Suite 360, London, Ontario, Canada, N6A 3K7
Tel: 519-661-2045 • Fax: 519-661-3921
Maia Hoeberechts was born of adventure. So it comes as no surprise the NEPTUNE Canada computer scientist now sits on the front line protecting Canada’s western shores.
In the early 1970s, Hoeberechts’ parents packed up and moved from Toronto to the Yukon after hearing promises of making $2,000 for a summer’s worth of employment. But instead of a single season, they stayed for 11 years. Hoeberechts, BSc’99, PhD’10, would be born there, and call it home until she was seven.
“I have never seen the stars like I remember them from my childhood,” she says. “I have these memories of the Milky Way going across the sky.”
Her family would move back to Ontario and London, and what followed were five Western degrees spread among the family. Her mother, Patricia Pakvis, earned a BA’93 and MA’95 (Sociology); brother, Jay Hoeberechts, a BSc’97 (Geophysics); and Hoeberechts soon followed with two of her own.
She entered Western as a music major in 1995, but lost the desire to perform and ended up pursuing computability theory, a marriage of computer science and philosophy.
She credits Western’s Scholar’s Electives Program, which promotes an interdisciplinary approach to a students’ academic career, for feeding her varied interests.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in both disciplines in 1999, and was admitted directly into the computer science PhD program. She submitted her thesis a decade to the day later in 2009, and earned a PhD in computer science in 2010.
Not interested in a tenure-track position, a long job search followed as she refused to settle. That’s when she discovered NEPTUNE Canada.
Called “Canada’s largest science experiment,” NEPTUNE Canada is a deep-water network of fibre-optic cable running 800 kms along the ocean floor (across the Juan de Fuca plate) off the coast of Vancouver Island. The project is part of the Ocean Networks Canada Observatory.
The network gathers data from a collection of underwater observatories operating at depths from 17-2,660 metres below the surface. That information is then transmitted to the University of Victoria, where it is shared with researchers across the globe to help answer what Hoeberechts calls “big questions.”
The project is at the forefront of protecting Canada’s shores from natural disasters like tsunamis.
Research triggered by the March 2011 earthquake/tsunami that hit Japan opened the doors to new information on how – and where – these events originate. Those findings led U.S. scientists to install tectonic plate movement gauges along the Canadian observatory network, the first of its kind in the world.
Now, scientists can see real-time tectonic plate movements, close to the fault’s shallowest location where seafloor movements trigger tsunamis.
Aboard the R/V Thompson, a University of Washington-based research vessel, Hoeberechts is a member of a team of five research theme integrators, all PhD-holding researchers focused on each of NEPTUNE Canada’s research focus areas. She spearheads the project’s computer science/engineering division.
Each summer, Hoeberechts spends a month or more at sea in charge of logging every action of the team from navigation and sampling to undersea discoveries. On land, she reaches out to grad students and scientists and co-ordinates research projects for them based on the data NEPTUNE Canada has collected.
“I wasn’t a star PhD student because I was just too unfocused, just like I wasn’t a star musician. But that’s what I like; that’s what I realized,” she says. “I am not the person that wants to drill down on a topic to the point that it becomes meaningless. No. I prefer big questions, which is why I like philosophy, and the big picture. In this project, and I really love it, we are trying to answer big questions.”
And for someone with a curiosity for the world like Hoeberechts, that’s all she ever wanted to do.
Login to view and post comments