A league of their own

(Edmonton) From fields as diverse as political science and medicine, the University of Alberta’s newest Distinguished University Professors share something special: an abiding commitment to their work and a deep pride in their students.

“Some of the huge privileges of being a university professor include being able to encounter one generation after another, and in crafting something through your teaching and research,” said Janine Brodie, one of three faculty members being named as a Distinguished University Professor for 2011. 

Brodie, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Political Economy and Social Governance in the Faculty of Arts, joins two other recipients: Professor X. Chris Le, a Canada Research Chair in Bioanalytical Technology and Environmental Health, and Professor Marek Michalak, both of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

The title of Distinguished University Professor is one of the highest honours the U of A bestows on a member of its academic staff. The title is awarded to individuals who have achieved outstanding distinction and scholarship in research, teaching and service to the academy and the community at large.
Brodie, Le and Michalak are among outstanding faculty, students and staff being recognized at Celebrate!, the university’s annual celebration of teaching, learning and research, being held Sept. 16 at the Myer Horowitz Theatre.

Steeped in dinner-table politics from an early age, Brodie has spent her 30-year career challenging staid approaches to political science, first through her early research on gender and politics, and later by cultivating new themes in the study of Canadian political economy, citizenship and social policy.

“In many ways, my research has pushed back against convention, bringing forward theory about how politics makes some people invisible and how we need to bring back the ideals of the public and collective responsibility into thinking about how politics can and should work.”

As the author or editor of 12 books, as well as writer of more than 70 journal articles and book chapters, Brodie hopes her work has contributed to contemporary “public and academic conversations about inequality, gender and social responsibility. Ultimately, the role of a social scientist is to make society better.”

And Brodie takes pride in the fact that her former students are doing just that.

Scattered across Canada and around the globe, they are serving at senior levels in their careers, “and out there making a difference.” In guiding her graduate students, Brodie has always taken care to give them enough safe space to research the questions that drive them.  “It is important to understand that they experience politics in very different ways, to validate those experiences, and to encourage them to improve society through their work.”

Le couldn’t agree more that educating students means more than rote learning. Instead, he engages the more than 100 trainees he has supervised since joining the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry in 1995, in examining how best that they can contribute to science and society while developing a solid academic base.

“I emphasize promoting excellence in citizenship through discovery learning,” he says, through his interdisciplinary research in three faculties: the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, the Faculty of Science and the School of Public Health.

Le is a Canada Research Chair in Bioanalytical Technology and Environmental Health and concentrates his research on analytical techniques around the chemistry of food and water safety, including detecting the presence of arsenic; currently he and his team are looking at the prevalence of arsenic in rural well water.

“I am in a unique environment, being appointed in three faculties,” he says, because “being established in a multidisciplinary learning environment means I benefit from wide areas of study.

“I like to work with young people of diverse backgrounds. They are active and motivated to succeed. I give the trainees complete freedom to learn, discover and explore. I strive to foster individual interests and creativity with opportunities to interact with peers by hosting conferences and seminars. Through that type of interaction with leaders in the field, the students benefit greatly.”

That sense of independence is important to creating a successful mentoring relationship between professor and student, Michalak agrees. “The mentor/mentee relationship is a big commitment,” he says. “I meet them once per week, for one hour, in a one-on-one meeting, plus daily interaction. This provides them with uninterrupted attention, and encourages independence and organization,” which he believes is crucial to discovery research.

Michalak is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and the vice-dean (research) in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. That position, which Michalak has held since 2009, allows him the opportunity to put his mentoring skills to work, “helping, influencing and mentoring faculty, in particular young faculty.”

Despite “the 3,000 other jobs” Michalak jokes he has, cultivating collaborative relationships with students is one of his most important jobs; the other is research. “I love it; it is the major focus of my life.”
All three professors are proud to receive recognition from the U of A for their accomplishments.

For Brodie, it is an honour she shares with her home faculty. “This, for me, is really emblematic of all the creative research that is done broadly in the Faculty of Arts—I don’t see me as standing out.”

“I am very humbled and honoured to be nominated and awarded this distinction, particularly knowing some of the professors who have also been given this award,” says Le. “This award sets a higher bar and I will continue to strive to foster a healthy multidisciplinary environment.”

As a winner of the Distinguished University Professor award, Michalak says it is a “huge honour” and more: “To me this is a great recognition of what we have done within my team. This is the time where I can constructively contribute something back to the university—to show what I can do for the U of A, rather than what can the university do for me.”