UTM undergrad with top marks heads to highly-selective MIT program

Tuesday, June 2, 2020 - 9:15am
Patricia Lonergan

Is time travel possible? That’s a question that has helped land U of T’s top undergraduate a coveted spot at MIT.

This fall, U of T Mississauga’s Abraham Mathew will join MIT’s PhD program in philosophy, one of the top five programs in the English-speaking world, where he plans to continue to find ways to make his chosen field of study relevant and accessible to everyone.

“I want to change the perception that philosophy is obsolete, or is academics in their ivory towers,” Mathew says. “It’s relevant to everyday life.”

His passion for and interest in philosophy has earned him two top departmental awards (Erindale Prize and Jacqueline Brunning Award), as well as the Governor General’s Silver Medal and the John Black Aird Scholarship.

The Aird Scholarship is awarded to U of T’s top undergraduate student across the university’s three campuses. Mathew, who has a minor in ethics, law and society, will graduate with a 4.0 GPA, an average he maintained throughout his time at UTM.

“Abraham Mathew is easily one of the two or three most talented students ever to come through the UTM philosophy program,” says Diana Raffman, professor and chair of UTM’s philosophy department. “His philosophical work, both written and oral, is in a different league.”

Mathew says he was surprised when he learned he won the award, admitting he didn’t initially realize the significance of it until he searched online and texted a friend, who’s reaction was “OMG.”

Earning these awards was never something he consciously strived to achieve, he says, noting he just tried to do the best he could in his courses. He credits his success to excellent time management, explaining his program had fewer exams than essays, which are harder to cram in.

“You can’t write it in two hours and do well,” Mathew says. That meant he had to look at how much time he needed instead of how much time he had, and plan accordingly.

Time will also play a role in his studies at MIT, where his research will focus on metaphysics and the philosophy of time. That might sound abstract, but true to his mission to connect philosophy at a popular level, he mentions the paper he submitted for admittance to grad school in which he asked: “Is time travel possible?”

The answer, of course, depends. One theory argues the past, present and future are equally real, and thus time travel would be possible with the right technology, while another suggests only the present is real. Whatever the answer might be, Mathew’s approach stirs the imagination and conjures images from science fiction, making philosophy relatable to a lay audience.

The Brampton, Ont. resident already has a head start when it comes to finding ways to show how fundamental philosophy is to society. As vice-president and later president of UTM’s Philosophy Academic Society, Mathew and fellow society members found ways to move the club from a series of coffee chats between a handful of those interested in philosophy to events that gathered over 100 people. Their first successful lecture was on Halloween night and delved into the philosophy of evil. Another well-attended talk explored the ethics of abortion and asked when a fetus becomes a person.

Philosophy, Mathew explains, is of “extreme importance.”

And yet, philosophy wasn’t what he originally planned to study. He came to UTM for the forensic sciences program. His initial foray into philosophy was the result of an elective.

Focused on the sciences, he opted for a humanities course, choosing a first-year philosophy course that turned out to be “super fantastic.” It started with logic, gave him an opportunity to read different philosophers and later tackle big questions like “what is knowledge,” and “does God exist.”

That first taste prompted him to take a second course and, by second year, Mathew decided to leave forensic sciences and focus on philosophy.

Now, instead of a future in law, he’s looking to build for himself a future in academia as a researcher, where he can help demonstrate the relevance and importance of philosophy.

His professors are looking forward to seeing what more he’ll achieve at MIT, which is a very selective program that only admits five people a year. “There is no doubt in our minds that we are looking at the start of a major career in philosophy,” says Raffman.