The passion of John Gabriel Pelias

by Stephanie S. Cabigao, UP MPRO

On April 17, 2011, under the scorching heat, I and 3,281 other graduates listened keenly to the words of our UP Diliman class valedictorian John Gabriel Pelias.

We were all in awe of what the 19-year old Mathematics major — who made UP history with a general weighted average (GWA) of 1.016, breaking a mark set in 1948 — had to say.

Even six years later, as I sat eagerly for a short talk with him, I could vividly remember him saying, “You graduated not from any university but from a university named after the nation. Use your talents to contribute to the country.”

As a fellow iskolar ng bayan who chose to stay and serve the University, I wanted to know what made him decide to do the same. Today, John Gabriel Pelias is a professor at the University of the Philippines Institute of Mathematics in Diliman, where he also took his master’s degree.

Prof. Pelias discusses “projective spaces” at the International Conference on Mathematics and Mathematics Education in Hong Kong, July 2016.

Why Math?

“I’m fond of Math. Ever since I was young I liked Math and Science. My first choice for UPCAT was Physics, but between Math and Physics, I was told that Math could get you a high paying job with insurance companies, compared to Physics,” he teased.

He continued, “Taking BS Mathematics was more of an inspiration from my high school teacher, and I went on to finish MS Mathematics because of what I saw in my undergraduate years.”

Interestingly, John wasn’t that interested in mathematical computation. “It wasn’t the math in Math that I saw and liked,” he says. “I’m bad at arithmetic. For example, I get stressed by having to compute, say, the price of Mayonnaise A versus that of Mayonnaise B and figuring out which is the better deal. But that’s the scaffolding to the better, the more real math that’s happening out there, which is what I saw in math. That math is not just about computation. Math is an art. For example, if you try to prove something, you’re trying to establish an eternal truth, a truth that cannot just be derived from observation.

“Observations will supply your assumptions but it is the deductive logic of philosophy that enables you to arrive at a conclusion. I suppose I like the feeling of certainty. I like order. And I think math is not just a scientific endeavor, but also an artistic endeavor. And I think mathematicians appreciate their craft because it is beautiful. You discover order in the cosmos, deciphering that pattern of the universe,” he added.

Why UP?

Finishing a master’s degree in MS Mathematics, he focused on differential geometry as his thesis, and plans to pursue it in his postgraduate work. “Actually, the reason I chose to take up further studies in differential geometry is that it has applications for Physics. And this is a chance for me to go back to my first love.”

He’d like to do this in the United States. As an avid fan of the American TV series The Big Bang Theory where his favorite mainstay actor Sheldon Cooper is a resident physicist of Cal Tech, John is determined to pursue his studies at the same California Institute of Technology. Among his other options are UCLA, UC-Berkley, Harvard, and MIT.

Six years after graduation, I asked our Class of 2011 poster boy the very same question he was asked then: why UP? Why choose to stay, when there are bigger opportunities professionally and financially in other industries both here and abroad, especially for someone like John Gabriel Pelias?

He eagerly replied, “Out of love and optimism for the university. First, I have my loyalty to my discipline. I hate computations. I’m not saying that they’re wrong, it is just that I don’t find joy in it. I knew that if I taught high school, that was what I would be doing. I also knew that if I worked in a company, I couldn’t use the math I knew, because I’d be dealing with business and that’s not the kind of work I want to do. In the university, you just do your academic work. My colleagues in the department have this goal of trailblazing in the field of differential geometry. It will benefit all of us,” he added.

Studying abroad for his postgraduate degree stems from that sense of loyalty to UP. “What I like and expect, being in this university, is having students who are critical thinkers. Even without an application, they can bring up ideas worth discussing. Why do we even have to ask why we need it? That’s why I greatly appreciate being in a university. You have no right to teach here if you don’t value critical thinking. Universitas is the totality of knowledge that you can muster and acquire. If you think literature is useless in life, you’re wrong. It’s this appreciation of the humanities that some students lack, which is why they also can’t appreciate the pure beauty of the eternal truth that mathematics provides. If you’re a mathematician, you should be passionate about literature as well,” he added.

The calculus professor confessed that he loves teaching but at the same time hates checking papers. Taking a break from teaching this midyear season, he has found the time to read his favorite authors such as Franz Kafka, Jean Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, while working on his requirements for his postgraduate program in 2018.

Rounding up our conversation, John pondered the “Why” question some more and continued, “I think I can use whatever I learned here and not somewhere else. Also, I love the diversity I see in UP. Because of its non-sectarian character, I get to see and meet people who are Muslims, Christians, Catholics, and atheists at the Academic Oval. I can express myself freely, and you’re not judged based on what you wear. I appreciate the unity in this diversity we have in the University. The vision of UP is that you can think of anything for as long as it is sound, and you can stand by and prove what you’re saying.”

The John Gabriel Pelias whom I gazed at admiringly in 2011 spoke to me just as profoundly during that afternoon interview. Despite the challenges he now faces as a faculty member, he pledged, “I want to live the last days of my life as a professor here in UP, where I can do what I want to do.” Well said, Professor!