Interview with Patrick Lam (Friend of the Society Award Winner Fall 2019)

The Friend of the Society Award is awarded to a faculty or staff member every semester for their contributions to bettering the mental health of their students. They are selected through a nomination period by a committee composed of the VP Academic ‘B’, and three at large council-elected members. The winning person’s nomination(s) must indicate that they have contributed significantly to at least one of the following:

  1. Advocating on behalf of students to eliminate elements that have a negative effect on student mental health
  2. Showing a long-term commitment and vested interest to the betterment of student mental health
  3. Taking action to directly improve the mental health of students

Professor Patrick Lam aims to support student mental health in any way possible. For the past three years, in his role as Director of Software Engineering he has been working to improve the software engineering program and to reduce the stress levels of software engineering students. He has taken time to review curriculums and classes and adjust them to better suit the needs and abilities of students – particularly for those in their 1A term. This includes advocating to adjust courses that have caused students undue stress in the past and working to improve the selection of electives in the program.

Patrick also ensures that he is always available for students to talk to and is a wonderful listener. He is always happy to assist students with any situation, be it academics or life. Patrick has time for all students navigating life whether they are in the middle or a crisis or just looking for someone to chat to. Read the interview below to find out more about why Patrick Lam is a Friend of the Society.

When did you decide to work at Waterloo?

Professor Patrick Lam completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s at McGill University before completing his PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After finishing his PhD he applied for teaching positions and received an offer from the University of Waterloo where we are lucky to have him.

What is your favourite part about interacting with students?

Patrick’s favourite part about interacting with students is that they are constantly bringing new perspectives to things. It is very easy to fall into patterns or get stuck doing the same thing but students are an ever replenishing source of new ideas.

Why is mental health important to you? Why are students’ mental health important?

The first mental health exposure Patrick had was at McGill University when another member of his research group discovered he has schizophrenia. His name was Raja Vallée – Rai and being a few years older than Patrick, he acted as a mentor to him. Tragically, Raja passed away in 2004. Patrick finds that every since he constantly wonders what – if anything – could have been done to help Raja. Raja Vallée – Rai was someone who could have done great things if he had only had more time, even then software Raja wrote is still used today.

Patrick feels that it is a tragedy that society was unable to help Raja and ever since then he feels strongly about mental health in general and responsible for helping students with their mental health however he can.

Students gave examples of how you are willing to assist them with any situation – no matter how big or small. Could you speak to that?

Patrick described how people are often faced with stressful situations that are difficult to deal with – sometimes it is things that are easy to handle in retrospect but in the moment it is very real and difficult. When someone is going through a tough time it is easy for other people to judge whether the situation is actually severe or not but Patrick understands that what matters is that it is real to the person experiencing it. He always wants to help his students in any way he can and he knows that in order to do that he must evaluate the situation and the persons feelings in order to find a solution. Whether it is a serious family issue or academic related stress Patrick always takes his students seriously and is always happy to help in any way he can – be that helping rescheduling assignments, offering advice or just being there to listen.

Given the opportunity, how would you like others to improve how we deal with mental health?

Patrick thinks it is very important to trust people, he acknowledges that verification is important, but he believes it is important to listen and take what people are saying seriously in terms of what they are going through. This means to listen to others when they share information regarding mental health or wellbeing and taking that information seriously. 

What message would you like to send to students reading this article?

“I think people are really unhappy for many reasons – but one of the reasons is because they are comparing themselves to other people. This is not the path to success. There are always going to be people more successful that you. You need to find your own path to success that works for you and work to make that happen”