FACULTY FOCUS: Omar Kihel lives life by the numbers

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Despite moving around the world as a child, there was always one consistent language in Omar Kihel’s life: mathematics.

The Brock University Professor of Mathematics, who was born in Algeria, has always been drawn to numbers.

“As a kid, it seemed that I had a lot of ease with mathematics,” he says, “but I did not know that mathematician was a possible career.”

Instead, Kihel’s love for science-fiction movies — with Star Wars topping the ranks — had him dreaming of life as an astronomer at an early age.

Over the years, however, as his interest in numbers grew, he came to realize that math was where his future lied.

“I like the rigour of mathematics, the beauty of proofs and the fact that certain problems can appear simple, understood by the majority, yet still remain unresolved,” he says. “I find that in mathematics there are questions that are of a philosophical nature: I often ask myself if mathematics is a language among others to read the world, or do we live in a mathematical world?”

Kihel began studying math at the post-secondary level in France, where he lived with his parents after leaving Algeria.

His father, a French teacher, helped inspire him to become a professor.

“He would tell me that he is surely not the best teacher, but that he gave his all for his students, to ensure they learned,” Kihel says. “This side of wanting to share knowledge with others definitely comes from my father. I saw how generous he was in his way of communicating knowledge.”

With that inspiration in mind and the growing desire to further his education, Kihel decided his next step was to study in North America.

He did not speak English at the time, with only French and Algerian Arabic spoken in his family’s home, but was given a scholarship to pursue his PhD at Université Laval in Quebec.

“At the time, I did not think that I would stay in Canada,” he recalls, adding he had intended to finish his studies and return to France.

That plan changed after Kihel completed his doctorate at Laval and post-doc at CICMA (McGill and Concordia University), and realized Canada was where he hoped to lay down roots.

“I felt that Canada was the country for me,” he says.

Kihel found the Niagara region and its relatively mild Ontario weather appealing, and in July 2002 landed a job that would bring him to Brock University.

“I really enjoy my career as a mathematician, and I feel lucky to be paid to do one of the things I love the most,” he says while reflecting on his career at the University.

Kihel credits his teachers through the years for helping to nurture his passion for math.

“This is something I want to share with my students,” he says. “I really enjoy research, and it is important to be a good researcher, but I think it is even more important to be a good teacher and care about my students. I know many of them will be future educators who will influence the next generation.

“Through this, I hope to have a positive impact on society.”

Kihel feels mathematics is often viewed as a subject to fear, with students sometimes hesitant to ask questions for fear of being judged.

“I always say there are no silly questions,” he says. “I want my students to succeed, and I do my best to be approachable.”

Kihel sees teaching as more than communicating knowledge.

“I want to connect students to the knowledge,” he says, “and I always try to surpass and improve myself.”

Kihel was recognized for his efforts in 2017 with Brock’s Faculty of Mathematics and Science Award for Excellence in Teaching, an honour he calls “gratifying.”

Outside of the classroom, he has found his niche in the research field of number theory.

“In my opinion, it is the only branch of mathematics that requires a deep understanding of other branches of mathematics,” he says, adding it has connections to algebra, geometry and complex analysis, and is also related to discrete mathematics. “The famous mathematician Carl Gauss said, ‘Mathematics is the queen of the sciences, and number theory is the queen of mathematics.’”

Kihel also has great interest in working to make mathematics more accessible to everyday people — and has seen the impact that can have.

At the beginning of his career, he gave a talk on cryptography at a local high school. One of the students in attendance was so intrigued, he later enrolled at Brock and eventually pursued his master’s and PhD under Kihel’s supervision.

“I am always happy when at the end of a conference with a general audience, people come to tell me how one event was enough to positively change their opinion on mathematics,” Kihel says.

A mathematics career in academia can be both demanding and challenging, he says, but it is worth it every step of the way if it is what you enjoy.

“There is nothing better than being paid to do a job we love.”

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