I The Foundation Years: 1967-1980

In 1966, the Honourable R. H. McKinnon, Minister of Education, announced the provincial Government was prepared to establish a third autonomous Alberta university.

The University of Lethbridge commenced operations in buildings on the grounds of Lethbridge Junior College on January 1st, 1967, and the first academic year began July 1st of that year. During the previous decade, university transfer courses had been offered by Lethbridge Junior College through affiliation with the University of Alberta, and in 1957, it became the first public junior college to offer first-year university courses; by 1965, the University Section of Lethbridge Junior College was teaching second-year Arts and Science courses. Also in 1965, the College began a two-year university transfer program with the University of Calgary, adopting Calgary’s curriculum to offer the physics transfer program.

Physics department faculty that first academic year (1967-1968) were professors Shigeru (Sam) Kounosu, Earl Milton, Joe Rood, and Arvid Schultz (Acting Chair 1967-1969), and laboratory demonstrator Margaret Fitzgerald. After Margaret left in June of 1968, she was replaced for the academic year 1968-1969 by Veena Ahluwalia, who in turn, was replaced by Dave Hemmings in September of 1969. Arvid Schultz was the only member who had taught physics previously for two years in the University Section of Lethbridge Junior College. The department began functioning with adequate, but certainly not generous support. Thanks to the purchase of laboratory equipment for the two-year university transfer program by Lethbridge Junior College staff members Arvid Schultz and Dahl Harvey in 1965 and 1966, much of which was eventually transferred to the university, the physics department was at least adequately equipped to offer the required introductory laboratory sections. On the other hand, the senior level laboratories were not properly equipped, and it would take another decade before that deficiency was addressed.

There were a number of significant milestones from this early period. Typically, the department only graduated two or three physics majors a year, but many of these were exceptional. There were 18 graduates at the first convocation in 1968 (see Figure 1), including one in physics, Don VandenBerg (Don had begun his studies in the university transfer program at the College). Don went on to postgraduate studies at University of Victoria and the Australian National University, returning to the University of Victoria to take a faculty position in astrophysics as an NSERC University Research Fellow. As a theoretical astrophysicist, Don’s work on galaxy evolution won him many honours, including a E.W.R. Steacie Fellowship, and a Royal Society of Canada Fellowship. Tim Spanos (BSc 1971) and Douglas Schmitt (BSc 1980) both ultimately landed faculty positions in geophysics at the University of Alberta, where they made significant and distinguished contributions to the field. After Tim Spanos completed graduate studies on black hole dynamics and geophysical fluid dynamics at the University of Alberta, a postdoctoral fellowship in the Theoretical Physics Institute led to an AOSTRA [Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority] Chair in geophysics at the university. After graduate studies at Caltech, and postdoctoral studies at Stanford, in 1989, Douglas Schmitt took up a faculty position in geophysics at the University of Alberta. In 2002, he was awarded a Tier I Canada Research Chair in recognition of his pioneering research of rock physics, and its application to time-lapse geophysical monitoring.

The most important milestone from this period was the university’s relocation from the campus of the Lethbridge Junior College on the southside of Lethbridge to a new campus across the Oldman River on the westside of Lethbridge. By the fall semester of 1971, 80% of university operations had moved, and a year later, the new campus was officially opened. From the outset, physics faculty were very much involved in the design of the new physics teaching and research laboratories, leading to a final plan which enabled everyone to have a research lab. Keeping this research space was another matter: none of the department members had external research funding, and internal funding was minimal, certainly not enough to sustain any viable research program. Nevertheless, faculty did what they could with very limited resources.

Shigeru (Sam) Kounosu, trained as an elementary particle physicist, worked on the hydrodynamics of chinooks, winds which are most prevalent in a region centred around Lethbridge. Joe Rood’s interests and efforts were mainly focused on teaching and administration, and was one of the longest-serving Department Chairs. As a keen observer of the weather, and having applied physics to understanding weather processes, he taught several courses in meteorology at an advanced level. Arvid Schultz worked on analyses of cycles in natural phenomena, desgined optical systems, and invented a non-electronic gaussmeter.

In the absence of external research funding, what research space the department had was not being used for research, and this was becoming increasingly evident to other departments, particularly Chemistry, and Biological Sciences, who were hiring research-active faculty. And so as this first decade came to a close, the department had lost to other departments, particularly Chemistry, a significant amount of their original allotted research space. On top of this, personnel problems beset the department.

In 1970, a fifth professor Bert McInnis joined the department, and was for several years director of the Colloquium Studies program, a student self-designed program. He left four years later leaving just five faculty (four Professors and one Academic Assistant) to offer the entire physics curriculum. In comparison to the departments of Chemistry and Biological Sciences, technical support for physics was lamentable: while Chemistry and Biological Sciences each had a storeskeeper/technician and two Academic Assistants, physics had not one staff member in either position. The steady attrition that the department had experienced over the previous five years of the decade had been demoralizing, and the university administration recognized the status quo was no longer an option. It was a tribute to the dedication and hard work of the founding members that throughout this difficult period, the department had continued to offer the curriculum, and graduate outstanding students.

For the physics department, 1979 was a watershed year. In the summer of that year, the Academic Vice-President Owen Holmes wrote to R.H. Barnsley (Associate Dean of Science) requesting that he initiate a review of the Department of Physics. A number of issues and events had triggered this request, including the resignation of Academic Assistant Dave Hemmings in June of 1979, as well as other staffing concerns. Dr. Holmes most important stipulation was that “external consultants should be retained to ensure a broad academic context for the review”. Following the establishment of an internal Physics Review Committee (Jack Hiscocks, Mathematics; Séamus O’Shea, Chemistry; Earl Milton, Physics) in the summer of 1979, the department was asked to conduct a self-assessment. Two external reviewers were consulted: Lynn Trainor (then in Physics, University of Toronto; see In Memoriam, Lynn Emmet Homer Trainor (1921 – 2008), Physics in Canada 64(3), 161 (2008)) and Donald Betts (then in Physics, University of Alberta).

These reviewers visited the university twice, and also interviewed “a wide variety of persons in the academic community.” The reviewers had access to the department’s self-assessment, and were asked by the Physics Review Committee to address a number of specific issues, including the curricular needs of physics majors and other students, the ability of the existing staff to meet those needs, and the level of scholarly activity in the department. In their final report, the reviewers did not mince words, and were quite frank and blunt in their comments. One reviewer commented on the “present sad state of research”, and noted that the attitude displayed towards research publication in the department’s self-assessment was “deplorable”. In his discussions with university faculty, the other reviewer was impressed by the fact that “this group could not conceive of a university without a physics department…”. While concluding that “the question is not whether the University should strengthen the Physics Department, but how”, it was evident to this reviewer that “that morale in the Physics Department has been decreasing over a period of years, and has reached a dangerous ‘low’ ”. This reviewer identified several reasons for this decline: no new staff, overwork, and little involvement in research. Even students he met during his visit could see that in comparison to chemistry, the physics department was understaffed and overworked.

As a bare minimum step in rebuilding and strengthening the department, one reviewer recommended that two new faculty be recruited immediately, one an experimentalist at the Assistant or Associate Professor level, active in an established area of research, and the other, an Academic Assistant to oversee organization and development of the undergraduate labs. The other reviewer suggested a number of options, of which his most favored was to use some combination of full and partial retirements to immediately hire two new faculty, both active in experimental physics.

The response by the university was refreshingly swift and direct. First, at the level of the internal Physics Review Committee, a recommendation was made that two experimental physicists be appointed no later than July 1981, and that sufficient funding be given to upgrade the undergraduate labs, and to provide the necessary research infrastructure for the newly recruited experimentalists. The department Chair, Arvid Schultz, responded enthusiastically to the report, but cautioned that the university should be prepared to provide the necessary resources for new faculty should it choose to implement the report’s recommendations.

The university implemented the recommendations by first recruiting a theoretician for a tenure-track position, and by September of 1981, Keramat Ali, a non-linear dynamicist, had joined the department. Recruitment of an experimentalist followed shortly thereafter, and by July of 1981, David Naylor, an experimental astrophysicist in infrared astronomy, had also joined the department. Due to uncertainties in funding, David began his duties in a term position, but soon, the quality of his work convinced the Dean to elevate his appointment to a tenure-track position. Now there was no turning back, and the die was cast. These two faculty were now the kernel of the first active, externally-funded research programs in the department, and over the next decade, they laid the foundation for the rapid growth in research during the following two decades (1991-2011).