Sphere of influence

(Edmonton) If Louis Hugo Francescutti had his way, he would have us approach things differently when tackling tough public health issues. And, as he was recently named one of the province’s top 50 most influential people by Alberta Venture magazine, that just might happen.

Francescutti, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, was joined by water ecology professor David Schindler and Molecular ecology post-doctoral fellow Catherine Cullingham as the only University of Alberta researchers to make the list.

“The old way of doing things is going to give you exactly what you’ve already got,” said Francescutti. “That’s not good enough for Canadians.”

Francescutti says there are ongoing concerns about the sustainability of the Canadian health-care system. "People are starting to realize that continuing to pour billions of dollars into the health-care system isn’t really making that many people healthy.

“We can’t abandon people who are unwell, but if we are to make the system sustainable for our kids and improve our economy, then we have to think very differently.”

When asked how he’ll leverage being recognized as one of Alberta’s most influential citizens to advance public health, Francescutti says, “That’s easy. I’ll use the opportunity to start discussions.”

There will likely be many such opportunities for discussion. In addition to serving as professor in the School of Public Health and president of the Royal College, he was recently appointed to a three-year term as honorary colonel of a Canadian military regiment, First Field Ambulance Edmonton.

Francescutti also sits on numerous boards, including the University of Alberta’s Board of Governors. “I see my role as encouraging leading-edge thinking and ensuring that our university is in tune with the needs of society.”

He thinks the U of A is poised to play a significant and positive role in many areas, including public health. “If we put together our most talented people and partner with our colleagues at other Alberta universities, we could successfully tackle one problem after another,” explains Francescutti. He suggests that this should be an iterative approach, where interdisciplinary teams come together to work on an issue and then disband, so that new teams are formed to work on another issue.

“Society is looking for relevance that is immediate,” says Francescutti. “We need to be responsible to taxpayers and give them solutions to problems that they face on a daily basis.”

A visionary at heart, Francescutti has a dream. “It’s not too bold to say, ‘Alberta wants to be the healthiest place in the world to work, play and travel.’”

After that, citizens can start expanding the province’s success internationally. “As a university, we have a responsibility to make sure that we take care of others.”

Alberta Venture named Schindler to the list thanks to his work advocating for the health of the Athabasca River. The former Rhodes Scholar, who has been named to both the Order of Canada and the Alberta Order of Excellence, began studying the Athabasca River in 1989 when he joined the U of A as the Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology. His conclusions—finding that Alberta’s oilsands industry is releasing more pollutants into the Athabasca River, its tributaries and its watershed than previously estimated—led to the formation of a provincial review panel.

“We have to establish a robust long-term monitoring program on the Athabasca,” said Schindler with the release of the study in 2010. “The effects on human and environmental health must be accurate and made public.” 

Cullingham’s inclusion in Alberta Venture’s top 50 most influential stemmed from her research that determined that the mountain pine beetle has invaded jack pine forests in Alberta, opening up the possibility for an infestation stretching east across the Prairies all the way to the Atlantic.

“Tracking the pine beetles’ progression and telling jack pine from the hybrid species took a lot of work,” said Cullingham, who raised the alarm with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development and the Canadian Forest Service, which will use the study to manage the infestation. “It was tricky, but our research team used molecular markers to conclusively show that the latest pine species to be attacked is indeed jack pine.”

Michael Sikorsky, who completed his first year as the entrepreneur in residence U of A’s Faculty of Engineering, also made the list. This CEO and co-founder of Robots and Pencils is making his mark in the rapidly expanding sector of smart phone applications or “apps.” In 2010, his company created the fourth-highest-grossing app in North America, Minecraft World. He also saw an iPad app his company designed climb to second on the charts in the United Kingdom earlier in the year. He won the 2010 award for innovation and leadership from Digital Alberta.

Alumnus Todd Hirsch, who received a bachelor of arts in economics from the U of A, made the list as one of the provinces most respected economists.

Andrew Leach, professor in the Alberta School of Business, was listed in Alberta Venture’s “next 10” section, as a “future leader to watch,” for his reputation as both a skilled economist and a voice of uncommon reason through his regular contributions to Alberta Oil and the Globe and Mail’s “Economy Lab” as well as frequent updates on his blog, which focuses on energy, climate and the oilsands.

Alumnus and former U of A CJSR radio station music director Aaron Levine joined Leach on the Next 10 list, thanks to his influence on bringing the spotlight to underground Canadian music via his label, Cantor Records.

Alberta Venture Links:
Catherine Cullingham:

Louis Francescutti:

David Schindler:

Todd Hirsch:

Michael Sikorsky:

Andrew Leach:

Aaron Levine: