Math wiz turns dream to teach next generation of computer scientists into reality with OISE

December 2, 2019
Dan Zingaro on a research trip in England during his OISE studies.
Dan Zingaro on a research trip in England during his OISE studies (photo courtesy of Dan Zingaro).

Dan Zingaro is the kind of guy everyone loves to run into on campus. Friendly, funny, Dan is frequently seen chatting with a group of colleagues or students.

When he's not teaching at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Dan volunteers his time in the OISE Mentorship Program where he mentors grad students looking to pursue academia in math or science. He also researches ways to evaluate computer science education and online learning. 

You went far yet stayed close to OISE after graduation. How did your career take off?

As I was finishing up my PhD at OISE, I was fortunate to be interviewed for a computational sciences teaching position at UTM. U of T has these teaching-track positions where you focus largely on teaching and not so much on research.

As a PhD student, this is the kind of job that I idly hoped to get one day. And then the "broken clock is correct twice a day" thing happened and I not only got the interview but also managed not to screw-up the interview! Now I work as a computer science teaching faculty and I am very grateful for this opportunity.

What was your PhD experience like, any surprises or challenges?

Maybe my most proud moment as a PhD student was writing this JOLT paper (please don't downvote me, I promise there's a story here). 

I was in my second year. I'd read papers and think, "Wow, there's no way I could write that, these people are the real deal." At the same time, my closest PhD colleague Murat Oztok (he's in England now) sat at the next desk over in our office and was publishing papers too – in between our games and antics. I learned from Murat that normal goofs can do this publishing stuff;  it isn't so unachievable. I started working on my paper and for the first time believed that I could actually publish something.

When I look back on that work now, to me it has this sense that I am trying to have fun and that there was nothing to lose.

For better or worse, my idea of fun hasn't matured much since my thirteenth birthday, so you see very determined efforts to include some completely-avoidable acronyms in that piece (and someone called me out on one of them at a conference  – I'll leave that part to your imagination).

This is when I realized that I could do research, have fun with it, and that maybe it wasn't impossible for me to be an academic.

What's the story behind applying to OISE?

I knew I wanted to stay in downtown Toronto and focus on education. So I kept applying. I applied the first time and didn't get in. I recently looked back at that application, and ... to the OISE admissions committee, thank you, that thing was a mess. I hope that I have brought you some laughs! I applied again the next year and again didn't get in. Third time was a charm  – well, the charm thing plus having done my MEd at OISE by then, so I actually knew something when I was writing the third application.

Did you feel supported by others during your PhD? Who comes to mind?

OISE worked out so well for me. We had a research group with my advisor Jim Hewitt, Clare Brett, and many research students.

We'd read papers, discuss teaching and learning, demo our own research, prepare for conferences, and so on. And while what I remember most is sending secret notes to people to try to get them to laugh during the meetings. The lasting thing was the community of people interested in student learning. 

We also hung out at conferences – going to dinner, attending research talks, going for walks – and that was a lot of fun and a very comfortable introduction to managing academic conferences.

Faculty support is something that I probably took for granted during my time here. I have this clear memory of one of my first papers being rejected, and when I got the rejection I went moping and complaining to Professor Brett, Chair of the department. Probably (hopefully?) she doesn't remember this.

She was extremely patient and funny and "this sucks" and "I know how this feels." I mean, if a student stormed my office in that kind of state I'd probably be way less patient than her. Jim and Clare repeatedly taught me a lot about how to be a student and a teacher and a person.

You seem to see the fun and humour in things! Do you have any more memorable experiences at OISE?

Too many. My first conference in New Brunswick comes to mind. That's the first time that I got to talk to my advisor outside of OISE and better get to know my doctoral colleagues. Plus that was the time that I thought it would be fun to order and eat the 10/10 spicy chicken wings on our first night of the event. 

What advice would you give to current doctoral students?

My advice would be this: You are not here only to get your degree. You are here to contribute to academia. Read, read, read. Don't skip sections, don't skip the results, don't skip the analysis. Read the paper as would a future writer. Why did these authors write in this way?

Oh wow—that's a cool sentence construction. Neat word choice. Crappy section—what does this add, anyway? Confusing organization! Read as a writer at least as much as a researcher. At the same time, write, write, write.

Don't wait. Write. We all have a lot to write. So get that out early. Then bring that to your advisor and ask them to help you make it better. They may tell you to throw it out. That's fine. That's not wasted time, that's iteration and one step closer to better work. 

With OISE I can...

"Help students learn."

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