2017 Top 40 Undergraduate Professors: Juan Serpa, McGill University (Desautels)

Juan Serpa

Assistant Professor of Operations Management

McGill University, Desautels Faculty of Management

Each year, the Desautels Faculty of Management recognizes one undergraduate professor and one graduate professor with Distinguished Teaching Awards. For 2017, Professor Juan Serpa received the honor at the undergraduate level–just one year into his new job as a member of Desautels. Nominations are submitted by students and the awards are reflective of high impact lectures, class discussions, enthusiasm for teaching, a personal commitment to student progress, the development of innovative teaching methods, and teaching evaluations.

Speaking of innovative teaching methods, it’s methods such as those recently used in his business statistics course that get noticed. This past semester, Serpa and his students applied business statistics principles to determine the likelihood of success for a film at the box office. Not only is Serpa admired by undergraduate students for making course material practical and fun, they applaud him for his availability and willingness to help them understand course material outside of class. For instance, during his popular ‘coffice’ hours, where informal discussions take place in coffee shops over weekends.

Age: 30

At current institution since: 2016

Education: PhD in Operations Research, University of British Columbia, 2015; MA in Economics, University of British Columbia, 2010; BSc in Mathematical economics, Trent University, 2009

List of courses currently teaching: Introduction to Statistics, Statistical Foundations of Data Analytics

Fun fact about yourself: My students sometimes ask me: why do you put a lot of blue in your lecture slides: is it your favorite color? Truth is, I’m red-green colourblind. This means I can’t really see most shades of red, or distinguish them from green. Because of this, I always use a different gamma of blues in my slide designs.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…”: To be honest, I don’t know how it happened. I started studying philosophy in university, but my English wasn’t good enough for a philosophy degree. So I cycled through five distinct majors: political science, sociology, mathematics, and economics. And somehow I ended in operations research/management after reading an article in Wikipedia.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…” I would have become a philosophy professor!

“One word that describes my first time teaching…” Ironing (my shirt)

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? Being in your late teens/early twenties is great; I miss my undergrad days, and hanging out with my university pals. My students remind me a lot of them. So there’s a bit of nostalgia in every lecture.

What is the biggest challenge that comes with teaching undergraduate business students? I think that, once they come out of high school, many of the students come with the expectation of being the best, getting all A’s, being top of their class…. or else, they think they won’t get that top job and that, as a result, they will live an unhappy life.

Modern society places so much pressure on students to excel, and that leaves them no time to explore themselves and to figure out what they really want. It’s a bit heartbreaking seeing students fall into this trap and trying to make them change this mentality.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? One of my students never wanted to be in university, but her parents forced her to go. They placed a lot of pressure on her. Against the will of her family, she quit and now is working in a coffee shop and is striving to be an artist. She’s extremely happy.

What is the least favorite thing one has done? I’d prefer keep that one to myself!

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Some work, good sleep, and—as with everything— a little bit of luck.

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …” Someone who likes to focus on the learning, not on the grading.  

“But I would describe myself as …” A reluctant grader. The whole grading part is my least favorite aspect of the teaching experience.

What are your hobbies? Board games.

How did you spend your summer? I spent —pretty much every evening —in a wonderful place in Montreal called Parc Lafontaine.

Favorite place to vacation: Vancouver. I used to live there, but it’s still my favourite vacationing spot. Such a great city.

Favorite book: Rayuela (from Julio Cortazar).

Favorite movie and/or television show: Waking Life.

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Bob Dylan

Bucket list item #1: I want to go to Iceland.

What professional achievement are you most proud of? I think coming to McGill was surreal. It was the end of a long process. I always loved Montreal. Ending up in this great city, and this great school, was a very special moment for me.  

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? My first stats lecture at McGill.

I said to myself: Juan, you’re going to prepare the coolest stats lecture ever!!! I titled it “Guns, Sex, Drugs… and Bad Statistics.” It is a really cool intro lecture to statistics, about how people manipulate statistics when it comes to controversial topics.

Lecture day comes. Students entered into the lecture hall. I wait for them to quiet down. Lights go off. The lecture begins with Johnny Cash song: “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town.”   It was a blast. For 90 minutes. I could see everybody loving it. At the end of it, I was feeling really happy. This lecture changed lots of things, and shaped my perspective about teaching.

Professor you most admire and why: My PhD supervisor, Harish Krishnan. He was very kind to me all along. 

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?

  • Current research: Using data from 200,000 public projects, I am studying (with two colleagues) which factors create delays and cost overruns across infrastructure projects. We are trying to figure out which factors enhance the ability of contractors to speed up their projects, and deliver them without wasting excessive public funds.
  • Biggest discovery: There is a common (mis)conception that insurance always leads to moral hazard—e.g., when individuals or firms buy insurance, this always induces them to exert less effort to prevent accidents. I showed, using a game-theoretical model, that this conjecture is false: in some cases, insurance (if used under the right circumstances) will lead to a network-wide equilibrium that reduces moral hazard — i.e., firms actually end up preventing more accidents by using insurance in the right way.

Twitter handle: Sorry, I don’t use twitter!

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” A lot more student activism for social equality and environmental justice.

“And much less of this…” Oh, the Suits and ties!  

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would like for you: Not quite sure to be honest! Just keep going with the flow, I guess.

Students say…

“Professor Serpa was caring to the extent that he held two or three “coffice hours” in coffee shops on Sunday nights for us to have the possibility to meet with him in an informal manner. We felt taken care of, no matter how hard the content ended up being.”

“Professor Serpa wanted us to “learn and love the subject”: he insisted on this philosophy and implemented it in class as well as in his exams and assignments. I can look back and confidently say that I did indeed enjoy his class thanks to his passion and devotion.”

Professor Serpa embodies a core principal for teaching, which is sharing the love of a subject to others. This transfer of information is done in an effective and caring manner.”

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