Rhodes warrior: Kickboxer Thain makes the grade – perfectly

Nithum Thain, PhD candidate in Mathematics and lates Oxford-bound McGillian. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Jim Hynes

He is the Rhodes scholar who nearly wasn’t.

Last year, Nithum Thain thought he was too old to apply for a 2010 Rhodes Scholarship, so he almost didn’t. It turns out that the 24-year-old Mathematics PhD candidate actually had almost a year to spare, but his misunderstanding of the age eligibility requirement for the world’s most prestigious academic scholarship caused him to miss McGill’s mid-September deadline for receiving its endorsement. At the last minute, the Kingston, Ont., resident received an endorsement from Queen’s University, where he completed his undergraduate degree in Math in 2006.

Thain has been a McGillian ever since. He completed a Master’s of Science (Mathematics) in 2008, scoring a perfect 4.0 GPA along the way, a standard he has maintained two years into his PhD.

“McGill has been a really good experience,” said Thain, a native of Burma who actually grew up in St. John’s, Nfld. “The Math department, in particular, is excellent – the staff, students, and faculty are some of the best in the country. Montreal is also a great city, where there is so much to see and do and so many interesting people to meet. I’ve built a community of good friends here and despite winning the Rhodes, I am a little sad to be leaving them.”

But leave them he will – at least for a little while. Come next fall, Thain will be at Oxford pursuing an MPhil in Economics.

One of only 11 Canadian students to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship this year, Thain is no stranger to academic awards and achievements. In 2008, he won the prestigious NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship. Two years earlier, in 2006, he won the NSERC Julie Payette Scholarship for being one of the Top 25 science graduates in Canada.

Thain is no slouch in Athletics either. A one-time captain of the fencing team at Queen’s, where he won two provincial gold medals, Thain won the Quebec provincial Savate kickboxing championships in 2008 after only one year of training in the sport.

The tip of the epée and a good swift kick were perhaps good preparation then for the Rhodes Scholarship interview process, which Thain called “a great deal of fun.”

“It takes place over two days. On the first day, there is a reception where you get to mingle with some extraordinary people, both among the committee and my fellow candidates,” he said. “It is a good chance to break the ice and take some of the edge off of the more formal interview that happens the next day. On the second day, you sit in the room alone with the committee and they fire very probing questions to truly get to know you. It really is fun.”

But even the normally high-spirited Thain was reduced to stunned silence by the phone call that came later that day.

“The interview took place in Toronto and, rather than biding my time in nervous anticipation, I had called some friends to go out for Vietnamese food,” Thain said. “I got the call from the committee mid-meal and just sat their in silent disbelief afterwards to the great amusement of my friends.”

Thain, whose current research interests include machine learning, game theory, epilepsy prediction and market competition, hopes to spend time working for a social business like the Grameen Bank after finishing at Oxford.

“I’d really love to encourage the growth of more social businesses in the marketplace, and who knows, maybe found one of my own some day.”