Sunday, 29 December 2013

December 28, 1983

In the autumn of 1983, I was a lost Ph.D. student at the University of Waterloo. My thesis was floundering because my heart just wasn’t into the research subject. Although I was interested in parallel computing, it wasn’t the kind of topic that made me want to work obsessively at uncovering new ideas. Instead I had a hobby, and that is what I spent all my time on, to the detriment of my thesis. Games. Computer games. Specifically, building a world-class chess-playing program.

When I started my Ph.D. program I hoped to do research on new technology for enhancing the performance of computer chess programs (an area of the field of artificial intelligence). Unfortunately, my wise supervisor burst my bubble when he told me (paraphrasing): “It won’t add up to much. Do yourself a favor and work on something respectable.” Computer chess was out, and parallel computing was in.

Three years later, my thesis progress was slow, but I had one of the best chess-playing programs in the world. In October 1983 it competed in the World Computer Chess Championship, finishing in the middle of the pack. I knew I was at a crossroads; the current situation couldn’t continue.

I decided it was time to leave the University and get a real job. But then two fortuitous things happened. First, fellow computer-chess researcher Tony Marsland at the University of Alberta let me know that there was a lectureship position available starting in January. Might I be interested? It was an intriguing thought because I could teach, get paid a real salary, continue working on my chess program, and collaborate with Tony. But it meant moving to Edmonton. Isn’t it cold there? At least they had a famous shopping mall (West Edmonton Mall) and an up-and-coming hockey team (the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers).

Second, newly hired Waterloo Assistant Professor Randy Goebel gave me some intriguing advice. He said (paraphrasing): “After a couple of years, no one really cares what you do your Ph.D. in. All that matters is that you have the degree, and what you have done with it.” In other words, there was no harm in getting a Ph.D. in computer chess; it is what I did with the Ph.D. that ultimately mattered.

It took a few weeks but I made a bold decision. I would move to Edmonton temporarily to work. While there, I would do my computer chess research in my spare time and see where that got me. And, if I produced something, Randy agreed to be my supervisor (even though my research had little in common with his).

Early on the morning of December 25, 1983, I left the Toronto area for an almost 4,000 kilometer drive. Three days, two blizzards, and one close call later, I arrived in Edmonton. I entered the city on the Yellowhead Highway and eventually pulled off the thoroughfare looking for a place to eat. I finally settled on a Boston Pizza (I ate lasagna). Afterwards, I went to West Edmonton Mall and marveled at it (in those days it was an international attraction), before finding an inexpensive (i.e., dumpy) hotel in the west end of town for the night.

It was Wednesday December 28, 1983. I would start my new job as lecturer on January 2. Clearly this was just a temporary position while I looked for more interesting job opportunities and amused myself with my computer-chess hobby. Little did I know that my interest in research would soon ignite, my thesis on computer chess would be written within a year, and 20 months after my arrival I would become an Assistant Professor. I never imagined having an academic career. Coming to the University of Alberta was incredibly fortunate for me.

Yesterday I celebrated the 30th anniversary of arriving in Edmonton. I returned to the Boston Pizza that served me lasagna 30 years ago. It’s in the same strip mall, but has moved to a newer building. And the lasagna? I don’t think the recipe has changed in the interim.

Many people have made and continue to make my 30 (and counting!) years here so enjoyable. My career would not have been as successful without the opportunities and challenges provided to me by the University of Alberta community. As Dean, it is my job to help others – students, staff, and faculty members – uncover their destiny.
Watching an Oilers hockey game (but really reading email) while visiting Boston Pizza, December 28, 2013.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Rarest of the Rare

How many people are privileged enough to have done something that has changed the world for the better? Not many. Of those people, how many have done this many times? Now you are talking about the rarest of the rare.

For almost a quarter of a century, the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta has been home to a scientist extraordinaire: someone who has had a profound impact on all of us. On October 30 and 31, we celebrated the accomplishments of Dr. David Schindler for his groundbreaking research into something that most of us take for granted: water. Dr. Schindler is one of the very few researchers on this planet who through outstanding research, passion, and force of will has made our world a better place to live.

Dr. David Suzuki (left) and Dr. David Schindler answering questions at the Schindler tribute "Letting in the Light"
Water, you ask. What’s the big deal about water? Everything, if we want a clean supply for today and tomorrow. Schindler’s legacy includes:
  • He was the founding director of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in Ontario. This is truly “big science”. The ELA facility consists of a large swath of land that encompasses 58 lakes. Schindler is not interested in “toy” experiments. When he wants data, he wants real-world data. The results from ELA-based research (Schindler and many others) have had enormous impact on understanding the effect of civilization on the environment.
  • His research on algae blooms on the Great Lakes led to the banning of high-phosphate laundry detergents and the use of phosphorus by sewage treatment plants.
  • He was the first to tie together the effects of acid rain, climate warming and stratospheric ozone depletion on freshwater ecosystems. This led to the control of sulphur-oxide emissions throughout the world.
  • He documented how pesticides can cause long-term damage to our ecosystems.  The result has been a major shift in the use of and chemical composition of pesticides.
  • Most recently, he demonstrated the impact of the Alberta oil sands development on water quality and aquatic life.
He is not shy about making his research public, and using it to change national and international policy. He is a tireless advocate for protecting the quality of our water for future generations.

Dr. Schindler has been recognized nationally and internationally for his accomplishments. Of the over 100 awards he has received, let me mention two. First he won the 2001 NSERC Gold Medal for Science, the most prestigious scientific award in Canada. Second, he was the inaugural winner of the 1991 Stockholm Water Prize (1991), created to be the Nobel Prize of water-related research.

On June 30, Dr. Schindler officially stepped down as the Killam Memorial Chair at the University of Alberta. Fear not; he will not fade quietly into the background. He has several books and research papers on the go. His voice will not be silenced; he will continue to be outspoken in his passion for protecting our environment. Alberta, Canada, and the world are the beneficiaries of his energetic efforts.

Every person on this planet owes a debt of thanks to David Schindler. Here is my voice: thank you, David.
From left to right: Jonathan Schaeffer, David Schindler, David Suzuki, and Andrew Nikiforuk (popular author)

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Digging in to Dino 101

On September 4, the Faculty of Science and the University of Alberta launched our first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). The debut course was “Dino 101: Introduction to Dinosaur Paleobiology” (actually, PALEO 200). We are now in week 9 of the course and things are going surprisingly well. We have a talented team of people (especially our paleontologists) who are doing a superb job of making sure that students enrolled in the course receive a memorable experience.

Dino 101 is not like any other course you have experienced. It is not a professor lecturing in front of an audience, or a talking head on a screen. It is not scribbling on a white board or a collection of PowerPoint slides. It is a well-thought-out filmed “experience”, including on-location shooting (real Dino digs), the use real fossils, and augmented with interactive experiences. In other words, it is cool, fun, and engaging! Check it out at Better yet, sign up and take the course. It’s free!

Creating, designing, producing and, now, delivering this course has been an incredible learning experience for all involved. The yearlong Dino 101 effort required the talents of over 50 people to transform the idea into a reality. Creating the course was akin to building a 16-hour documentary. We had people in roles such as producer and director. We held a screen test to identify our co-host. We wrote scripts with dialogue. We filmed and re-filmed to get the visual images just right. We even had our own “Hollywood Star”, Dr. Phil Currie (well, at least he is a star in the paleontology world).
Paleo artist extraodianaire Jan Sovak and Paleo hunter extraordinaire Phil Currie.
 The variety of skills that had to be brought to bear on this project was surprising to me. Some of the key areas of expertise include:
  • Management: producer, project management, financial expertise, legal expertise, administration
  • Pedagogy: domain expertise, instructional design, pedagogical assessment
  • Filming: director, presenters, graphic design, artists, videography, film editing, script writing, makeup artist, diction coaching
  • Technology: software development, technical support
  • Sales: marketing, product development
Quite frankly, when the Dino 101 project began in earnest in October 2012, I had no idea of the level of commitment needed to see this through to a successful conclusion. That it all worked out in the end is a testament to the passion of the team members (University Digital Strategy, Faculty of Science, Faculty of Education, and contractors). After all, we were all working on dinosaurs; what other motivation did you need? How cool is that?
Dino 101 director Kevin Barrett,
 Dino 101 is a success. Over 20,000 students are enrolled in the course and several thousand are already interested in the January offering. The community feedback for the course has been overwhelmingly positive – web sites, reviews, user forums, etc. At the University of Alberta 450 students are taking the course for credit. Over 200 people external to the university are taking the course for certification (Coursera’s Signature Track) or for course equivalence.

We have two more MOOCs in development and two more on the drawing board. With Dino 101, we set a high standard of excellence, and we have every expectation of meeting or exceeding this performance bar with our future MOOCs. We want the University of Alberta brand to be synonymous with quality. 

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Quality... and Quantity

As many of you know, these are challenging times at the University of Alberta due to financial matters. Some people obsess over this---the sky is falling. However, this hides the truth about the Faculty of Science. We have a great team of professors, staff, and students. I don’t need to justify this; actions speak louder than words. At Thursday September 19’s  Celebrate! Teaching. Learning. Research” event, the strength of the Faculty of Science was on display for all to see. A total of 19 people received recognition (more than any other Faculty), and it was my privilege to be on stage to congratulate each of the winners:

Royal Society of Canada: James Pinfold (Physics) and Raymond Egerton (Physics). This is national recognition for a distinguished career.
J. Gordon Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research: Roderick Wasylishen (Chemistry). Each year, one University of Alberta researcher gets singled out for having made important research contributions.
Killam Professor: Dennis Hall (Chemistry). This is recognition for his fundamental work that has led to “the creation of new compounds that are currently in preclinical development for treating cancer.”
Sloan Research Fellowship: Julianne Gibbs-Davis (Chemistry) and John Davis (Physics). Yes, a husband and wife team. They each applied separately and were both successful. Although they work in separate areas, they are competitive with their colleagues and with each other.

The following award titles say it all.
William Hardy Alexander Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching: Enver Osmanagic (Mathematical and Statistical Sciences).
Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching: Alex Brown (Chemistry).
Excellence in Graduate Teaching: Robert Campbell (Chemistry).

Support Staff
Research Enhancement Award: Charlene Nielsen (Biological Sciences), awarded to a staff member who consistently makes contributions to research success in their Department.

Student Achievement
Rhodes Scholarship: Megan Engel. A Rhodes scholarship? How cool is that!
Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship: Tiago Simoes (Biological Sciences) and Jody Reimer (Mathematical and Statistical Sciences). A prestigious national award.

Awards for superior undergraduate academic achievement:
Chancellor’s Citation: Rebecca Burchett and Taylor Rocque.
BMO Financial Group Citation: Grace Bellerose.
President’s Citation:  Deepan Hazra, Adam Mullan, and Spence Wilkie.

It is wonderful to step back from the daily grind and reflect on the good things that the Faculty of Science team is accomplishing. And there is much more to come…

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Dino 101: Using the Past in the Present for the Future

On Tuesday, the Faculty of Science and the University of Alberta announced their first MOOC: “Dino 101”. What is a MOOC? What is Dino 101?

MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course. MOOCs are university courses delivered over the Internet that can scale to hundreds of thousands of learners. The first MOOC was an advanced course in computer science at Stanford University launched in September 2011. It was available for free and, amazingly, attracted 160,000 registrants! The current record is 250,000. Imagine the thrill of teaching to an audience of one-quarter of a million students. The number is mindboggling.

Dino 101 is the fun name we use to describe our new Faculty of Science course PALEO 200: Dinosaur Paleobiology. It’s an introduction to science using the fascinating subject of dinosaurs. (C’mon. Admit it. How cool is that?) Although officially a second-year accredited course at the University of Alberta, it has minimal prerequisites (familiarity with basic biology) making it suitable for learners of all ages.

Usually the first question I get asked by the media is “Why dinosaurs?” When planning started for a MOOC a year ago, there were two considerations that seemed important. First, we wanted to do something different, not just one-up an existing “MOOCified” course. Second, we wanted to showcase the research and teaching strength of the University of Alberta as a way of enhancing our provincial, national, and international reputation. Creating PALEO 200 was the result of these discussions.

The University of Alberta has access to enormous paleontology resources. We have a world-class paleontology team led by Dr. Phillip Currie, the world’s foremost dinosaur researcher. The University’s history in paleontology research goes back almost 100 years and this has resulted in an enormous collection of artifacts available on campus for research. As well, there is a dinosaur dig in Edmonton, the world-class Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, and the World Heritage site Dinosaur Provincial Park. All of these were used in the making of Dino 101.

Members of the paleontology team (professors and students) worked together with researchers in the Faculty of Education and the UofA’s experts in digital strategy to create an engaging learning experience. The combination of expert paleontologists, on-location shooting, usage of real fossils, and interactive tools create, in my opinion, a new standard in MOOC development.

Dinosaurs appeal to young and old, male and female, and cross international boundaries. If an advanced computer science course could attract 160,000 learners, how many might Dino 101 appeal to?

On September 4, our dinosaurs roar to life. Help spread the word: register for Dino 101 at the University of Alberta site ( or with our partner, Coursera (

It’s fun (unlike any course you’ve taken before).
It’s educational (shh! Don’t scare people away).
It’s free (unless you want to get official university credit).
Why not give it a try?

With apologies to anyone with literary taste:

There once was a course on T-rex
Plus creatures with very long necks.
The learning was great;
Alberta, first rate;
Ta-da! It was better than s**.

I’ve taken the course, now I’m wiser
It wasn’t for fee, I’m a miser.
My girl doesn’t know
To school I did go
With knowledge so new, I’ll surprise her.

To learn brand new things was such fun.
This MOOC, yes, was second to none.
There’s much more to learn
Plus credits to earn.
More courses? I’ll never be done.

Monday, 15 July 2013

A Rocking Good Time: Going Back to School

An important part of my job is fund raising – meeting with (potential) donors and helping them determine whether the Faculty of Science is a good philanthropic match for their interests. I have met literally hundreds of donors in my first year as Dean. By and large, they share little in common other than their passion for wanting to make the University of Alberta a better place for students, staff, and/or faculty.

On average, the most affluent graduates from the Faculty of Science are those that pursued a geology-related program. With Alberta’s enormous wealth below ground (oil and gas), there are many Science graduates that struck it rich finding oil, creating oil companies, running oil companies, or servicing the oil economy. When you talk to these people, you discover that all of them have strong memories of their time at the University of Alberta. But in all cases, one student experience in particular stands out: their time spent in the geology field school(s).

Our geology program, part of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, has several 10-day intensive courses that bring the student out of the University classroom and into the classroom of the real world. To truly understand geology, one must go to where the rocks are interesting, so that you can get first-hand experience seeing natural formations, analyzing them, mapping them, and inferring their past. Understanding the evolution of a terrain is the key to understanding what might lie below.

It’s one thing to meet a prospective donor and hear the passion that they use to describe their field school experience. It’s another thing to really understand what they are talking about. So, if one is to talk the talk, one has to walk the walk. In May, I took three days off and joined the course EAS234, a 10-day field school in Jasper National Park. I wanted to better understand why this was such an important experience for our geology graduates.

Mount Edith Cavell, as seen from the top of a hill while doing EAS234 mapping. 
EAS234 is very demanding. Students work in the field from 8:30 to 5:00 every day. They return to base and then process the data gathered from their fieldwork as part of their nightly homework. They break for an hour to have dinner, but then return to their analysis. Their homework is due by 9:00, gets marked that night, and returned to the students the next morning. This goes on for ten days. Although it sounds like the course is a holiday (“spend 10 days in Jasper and get credit for it!”), in reality the students work hard from the first day to the last day. 

Co-instructor Sarah Gleeson (right) working late at night grading assignments with the teaching assistants.
Each day they would be bussed from their hotel to an interesting geologic area in the Jasper region. Rain or shine, they would then work continually in the field, except for a one-hour lunch break. The first few days of the Jasper school were very cold (including snow for one of the EAS234 student groups based in Nordegg), but when I arrived the weather turned unpleasantly hot. Too cold is distressing, but I can assure you that too hot is equally uncomfortable – especially when you are out in the mountains with little opportunity for shade and no cold drinks. Regardless of the weather, the students would soldier on, doing whatever was necessary to get the data they needed.

Much of the fieldwork effort was spent building a map that described the geologic history of the region they were mapping. To do this they had to look for clues. They would scour the land looking for rock outcrops and from these observe the type of rock, the layers in the rock, and their shape/formation. All of these are clues that allow a trained geologist to infer what must have happened over eons of time. Mapping the ancient history of the land is not an exact science. From one’s observations one can infer what likely happened. But different geologists using different rock samples might come up with alternate conclusions. Still, it is fascinating to see the clues in the rocks and being to understand what might have happened to result in what you are observing. This can include tectonic plate activity, volcanic activity, ancient ocean deposits, and so on. Every rock formation tells a story going back many millions (even billions) of years.

Co-instructor Octavian Catuneanu showing an interesting geological feature at Athabasca Falls.
There was one moment that defined the entire trip for me. I joined a team of three students that was building a map of  the geologic history of  a region just outside the town of Jasper. The students plowed ahead with their map making, looking at rocks, and following the direction that the rocks pointed in. They made all the right inferences, and were the first to reach the far end of the mapping region. Rather than waiting for the other students to catch up, they followed their instinct and went in a direction that would eventually return them to the starting point. The chosen path required some awkward climbing. Convinced that they were on the right path, they kept moving along, mapping as they went. It was rather eerie being alone in the mountains, knowing that there were 10 other teams out there doing the same thing, but none were in sight. Eventually self-doubt began to creep in, and the students questioned whether they had been mistaken in their choice of path. As they moved through the hilly terrain, they were diligent in building their map and observing the geology. But something didn’t seem right. The lines on the map didn’t match their preconceived expectation – this didn’t confirm to the “textbook” examples they were familiar with. As the students paused and wondered what they had done wrong, one student said “What if…” and suddenly there was an explosion of excited chatter. What if the scenario they were observing wasn’t straight out of a textbook? What if the odd curving of the geologic lines was because, well, things are different in the real world? A couple of minutes later they had their answer; they understood what was happening and were visibly confident in their realization.

Examining a rock outcrop.
This is an example of a wonderful “Ah ha!” moment, where there’s a sudden insight and deep learning happens. The students were excited at their discovery, and I was excited to witness this delightful moment of understanding. After all, this is exactly what a university education should be about.

Of course, I have had the pleasure of witnessing “Ah ha!” moments with my graduate students many times before. Every one of those times is a special memory.

The team of students that I was privileged to spend time with received the highest mark in the class for their work that day. At the end of the course, they were awarded a special prize for creating the best map in the class.

Non-student observers of the course.
The field school is all about creating a deeper learning of Nature and the wonders of our planet. The students work hard for 10 days making for a concentrated and intense learning experience. The members of a team bond with each other, and these bonds often last well beyond their University of Alberta days. This is no ordinary course, which is why it gets etched in the memories of all the participants.

I had a wonderful time participating in EAS234. I learned something about rocks and geology. I met some wonderful people. And I now have a greater appreciation as to why past geology students can regale me stories of their time spent at field school, in some cases going back 50 years.

Monday, 1 July 2013

One Year On

One year ago I became the Dean of Science at the University of Alberta. I was nervous about this position as, like any new job, there is always doubt as to whether one can succeed. At the back of my mind was the worry that this would be my "Peter Principle job" – rising to my highest level of incompetence. The jury is still out about the Peter Principle, but I do feel comfortable in my new role.

The year has had several highlights, some of which I would like to share with you:
  • The Faculty of Science has an impressive team of professors, staff, undergraduate students, and graduate students. I did not fully appreciate this at first, but over time my admiration grew. "Impressive" sounds like a generous adjective, but it is an apt description. For example, the past year has seen numerous members of Science receive prestigious awards, lifetime achievement awards, research prizes, scholarships, teaching awards, and service awards. If it were just a handful of awards, then "impressive" would be an exaggeration. It’s a bushel full, and that’s impressive! There is a commitment to excellence, and it shows throughout the Faculty of Science.
  • It has been amazingly fun and an incredible learning experience to find out about all the cool things going on in Science. Many researchers (from professors to students) are working on projects that excite the imagination. Whether it be looking at bones from 65 million years ago, understanding what happens when the temperature drops to within a degree of absolute zero, predicting the effects of climate warming on the polar ice cap, working with oil companies to reduce environmental impact, preparing to send an experiment into space, or getting a better understanding of the causes of some diseases, every scientist has a story to tell. I have heard many stories and all the storytellers have infectious passion for their work.
  • We have made great faculty hires in Science. The quality of people we are attracting to Edmonton is a reflection of the quality of the Faculty of Science.
  • An unexpected surprise for me has been meeting with donors and alumni. Actually, I feared this part of the job, as I am not the most social of people. Instead, I found most of these interactions to be fun and engaging. Every donor/alumnus has a story to tell. It is amazing to hear what people have accomplished with their University of Alberta degree.
  • Convocation this year was a highlight for me (see last month's posting). It was a delight to personally congratulate this year’s class on their milestone achievement.
  • The Faculty of Science has started moving down the road of offering MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Our first MOOC will launch in September – affectionately called "Dino 101" (actually PALEO 200: Dinosaur Paleobiology). It has been a huge amount of work by a lot of passionate people to prepare this high-quality course for the world. You should consider taking the course – for free or for credit.

Okay. so not everything has been rosy. Along with the fun part of the job, one also has to take the pain. And there has been some pain...
  • Budget. What else can I say? On March 7, 2013 the Alberta Government shocked everyone by deciding to cut the post-secondary sector in Alberta by 7.2% (actually 9.2%). This has been a massive blow to all the affected institutions. The University of Alberta is still wrestling with how to handle this enormous loss of funding. The Faculty of Science’s budget has been reduced by over 4% this year, with more cuts coming in the next two years. I became Dean with the intent of growing the Faculty of Science both in size and in reputation. Instead I find myself doing damage control, making hard decisions how to shrink the Faculty in the least harmful way. 
  • The job involves an enormous amount of work. It seems impossible to escape it, seven days a week, 365 days a year. There is no notion of a 40-hour workweek. At one point I kept track of how many hours I worked each day but abandoned it after two weeks; the results were too depressing.
  • I have been frustrated with the level of bureaucracy at the University of Alberta. Everything seems takes longer to get done than it should. Even "obvious" things can get mired in paperwork. Sometimes I fantasize about throwing out all the rules/regulations and just getting on with the job and doing the right thing (and ask for forgiveness later).
  •  I eat out too often and it is bad for my waistline. Donor meetings. Awards ceremonies. Visitors.  Celebratory events. Too many.
What’s in store for the next year? Clearly the budget will be the dominant issue in most people’s minds. For me, I look forward to September and the launch of Dino 101. I hope it/s everything we dreamed of – a superb online experience that will excite learners of all ages. What’s cooler than a free course on dinosaurs?