It’s never too late to start something.
That’s assuredly true about graduate studies, as the life of the late Dr. Bernard Ki-Yun Law, PhD, illustrates with remarkable grace.
Law passed away at the age of 63 on Sept. 3, 2021, following a struggle with cancer. He was in the homestretch of his PhD in geoscience with only his oral thesis defence outstanding. Everything was ready; the exam was scheduled, and Law had put final touches on a 57-slide presentation of his research. Illness prevented him from attending the exam, but on the day before he passed, surrounded by loved ones, Law learned that his PhD would be awarded.
It was immensely meaningful news for Law and his family. “Dad wanted to see his dissertation go into the library, so that it would be a resource for others,” says Law’s daughter Li-Ming. “He was always trying to find ways to fill in gaps in the field, addressing some of the common struggles that people had interpreting geophysical data.”
A lifelong passion for learning
Law started graduate studies after retiring from a successful career in Alberta’s oil and gas sector. Originally from Hong Kong, Law moved to Canada following his older sister who opened a restaurant in Revelstoke, B.C. Still in his teens, Law finished high school in Revelstoke before entering the University of Saskatchewan to complete a Bachelor of Engineering (1982) in geophysics and seismology.
After graduation, Law started a geoservice company in Calgary with a few university acquaintances and developed proprietary algorithms for interpreting seismic data. Law also married and started a family, with four daughters and a son.
Two of Law’s daughters – Tina and Li-Ming – reminisce about his dedication to family and how those values were shaped by Law’s own parents and grandparents. “His grandfather worked in restaurants in California and sent money back to family in Hong Kong,” as Li-Ming recalls. “He lived in a one-bedroom house and would make clothes to sell.” Law’s daughters agree that the selflessness of his forebears had a major influence on his own outlook and approach to family.
“He wanted all of his family to live well, and not struggle to have a roof over their heads,” muses Tina as she remarks on the stoicism and grace in the face of adversity that had always underscored Law’s approach to life. “Even in his sick bed, if the doctors asked him what pain he was experiencing on a scale of one to ten, he would always claim it was a zero.”
It might not occur to all of us to go back and pursue a graduate degree after retiring, but Law was marked by a passion for learning. It didn’t surprise his family at all, and it fit a pattern of restless curiosity made apparent in his many hobbies which ranged from astrophotography to collecting vinyl records and restoring hi-fi equipment.
According to Law’s supervisor, Dr. Daniel Trad, PhD, Law’s research focused on geophysical tomography, which is an applied method for “estimating wave propagation velocities in the subsurface by using seismic data obtained on the surface.” To simplify, as seismic waves are sent into the earth, they reflect or refract at different wavelengths, and measuring these wavelengths can help researchers arrive at 2D or 3D models of what lies below the surface.
“Bernie's research was working on state-of-the-art methods that are not well understood outside a reduced circle of experts,” says Trad. “In particular, he was trying to merge information from the near-surface and the deeper structure. This type of research requires a combination of many approaches, each of which may not be new, but their combination makes a difference. The benefits are the quality improvement obtained from the geophysical data. For example, that may make the difference in defining where oil or gas is, or where CO2 removed from the atmosphere is going when injected into the subsurface.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as it turns out. While studying geophysics, Li-Ming was in the strange position of having their father as a teaching assistant for a course. Eventually Li-Ming chose another path, but one that uses many of the same principles.
“I’m an ultrasound technologist,” Li-Ming explains. “When I was going back to school for sonography, dad suggested I look into medical imaging – and that’s exactly the type of diagnostic imaging that I work with now!”
Age is just a number
“Bernie Law might seem like an outlier, but in many ways, he really isn’t,” as Dr. Robin Yates, PhD, dean and vice-provost of graduate studies explains. “Grad studies really is for everyone; it’s not the ivory tower that popular culture sometimes makes it out to be. If you have a passion for learning and for growing and applying your expertise, graduate school is the place for you. It doesn’t matter if you are fresh out of an undergraduate degree, or fresh into retirement. Learning is a lifelong vocation, and grad studies is a key part of that for people from all backgrounds.”
Trad, Li-Ming and Tina all agree on this point. “Did Bernie’s age matter?” asks Trad. “Not at all, he had the curiosity of a young man with the experience of a long-life researcher. It is difficult to say where his energy came from in his last days, but I can picture he had an internal volcano of passion for science.”