Thursday, 20 June 2013


Wednesday June 12 was convocation day for the Faculty of Science. At two convocation ceremonies that day, almost 1,000 undergraduate and graduate Science students received their degrees. The day was full of pomp and ceremony as befits a milestone event in one’s life. The venue seats almost 2,000 people and almost every seat was taken. Excited students. Proud parents. Eager friends.

As per tradition, I had to wear my formal academic garb. In the picture below I am dressed in the colors of the University of Waterloo (Ph.D., 1986). With my beefeater hat and long flowing garb, I felt like I was a member of a medieval court. Ah, the things Deans must do to provide photo ops for proud parents.
Science Honorary degree recipient James Balog. Check out his amazing photography at
On stage, my job was to shake the hand of each graduating Science student. They enter the stage as a graduand and after shaking my hand they officially become a graduate. Over the two ceremonies, I had to congratulate roughly 500 students (many did not show up). Do you know how tiring it is to stand on stage and shake 500 hands? Further, I wanted to say something personal to teach of them, something more than just “Congratulations”. It’s easy to have original comments for the first few dozen, then it becomes tiring and I lapsed into using several stock phrases. My throat was sore by the end of the day.

As each student approached center stage, I tried to look directly into their eyes. Some students were bubbling over with excitement – after all this was the culmination of many years of hard work! Other students appeared to be absolutely terrified – as if being on stage in front of 2,000 of their peers, family and friends was a horrific ordeal. My job was to try and capture their attention, flash a broad smile, and make subtle gestures to welcome them forward for the traditional handshake. For some, I think I made a small difference in relieving the stress. For others, it remained a scary experience.

Let’s do some math:
  • Over 900 undergraduates (pretend it is 900).
  • Each student takes 40 courses in their degree program.
  • Each course has 39 hours of lectures and an average of 1.5 hours of labs per week (roughly 20 hours).
  • Homework at the rate of 3 hours for each hour of lecture. That’s the official line, if you believe it.

Grand total? 900 x 40 x (39 + 20 + 39x3) = 6.3 million hours of learning. Another way of looking at it is that each student spent an average of 62 hours studying per week for each of 8 terms (14 weeks/term with 5 courses per term). Life as a university student isn’t easy!

Science Honorary degree recipient Ian Stirling. Almost 40 years of work in the Canadian North raising awareness of the plight of polar bears.
I had an epiphany on graduation day. Over breakfast that morning I listened in on a discussion of the vast wealth that Alberta has under the ground (oil and natural gas). It was yet another debate on the pros and cons of the oil sands: does economic benefit trump environmental impact?

Later that morning, as I sat on stage staring out at several hundred students about to graduate, it occurred to me that I was looking at the real wealth of Alberta. These students were about to embark on exciting careers, careers that will help shape the economic prosperity of Edmonton, Alberta and even Canada. Who knows what these talented people will do? Start new companies? Make exciting scientific discoveries? Give back to the community? All I know today is that our graduates have an important tool in their career arsenal – a high quality University of Alberta education. What they do with it is up to them, but I’m confident this year’s graduating class will enrich our lives. Young eager minds ready to make their mark in the world is the real wealth of Alberta.

Congratulations to this year’s graduating class. You should be very proud of your accomplishments. The Faculty of Science is honored to have played an important part in your life.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre

A few weeks back, I had the privilege of visiting the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (BMSC). This superb research facility is jointly owned by the Universities of Alberta, British Columbia, Calgary, Simon Fraser, and Victoria. I went to BMSC to attend the annual face-to-face meeting of the five partners to assess the events of the past year and plan for the next. 

The logos of the five Bamfield partners, put up just hours before we arrived.

The BMSC consists of 190 acres of virtually pristine land on the south-west side of Vancouver Island. Although it is not far from Victoria as the crow flies, getting to Bamfield isn’t easy. One can drive there, but the last third of the 4.5 hour drive is on a rough logging road where you have to avoid potholes, stones, and large logging trucks travelling at high speeds. Instead, I flew to Nanaimo, was driven an hour to Port Alberni, and then took a 1.5 hour boat ride to Bamfield.

Spectacular view of the Bamfield area ( The BMSC buildings are at the bottom of the picture.
The Marine Sciences Center is the home away from home for many Western Canadian marine researchers and their graduate students. They typically come for the summer to conduct research in a variety of marine-related topics, including aquatic animals, the ocean environment, rainforest habitats, and numerous species of wildlife. During the spring and fall, there are many courses offered at Bamfield giving the lucky students hands-on experience working in a superb research environment. How come they didn’t have incredible opportunities like this when I was a student?

The students and faculty come to Bamfield to work, but they also come to escape. Your senses come alive here. Visually, the setting is idyllic, surrounded by majestic green forrest on three sides and the ripling blue ocean on the other. The air smells different. It's fresh – even invigorating – with a salty tinge to it. You can step outside in the early morning and not hear a man-made sound, just the rustling of leaves, lapping of the waves, and the call of the birds. Animals frequently make an appearance, with bear sightings a regular occurance (apparently there are cougars nearby). During my two-day stay I missed seeing the bear that ambled onto the BMSC grounds, but I did see the bald eagle showing off its ability to glide overhead scanning for prey.

The view from the BMSC looking west towards an island and the Pacific Ocean beyond.
Accommodations are minimalist. BMSC has excellent research facilities but tends not to spend much on housing. That’s okay, since you come to Bamfield to work, not play. The impressive Rix Centre is the focal point for much of the research and social activities, including a wonderful meeting room with a panoramic view of the water.

The Rix Centre for Ocean Discovery.
We weren’t the only guests getting food and accommodation at Bamfield
Although I have known about Bamfield for many years, it wasn’t until this trip that I discovered what it really was. The University of Alberta is 1,000 kilometers away from the Pacific, yet we have in effect a shared mini-campus on the ocean shore.

A reality check.