A comprehensive evolution

In the 1990s, the academic discussions in Alberta largely focused on the province's two research-intensive institutions – the universities of Alberta and Calgary. That began to change once Dr. Dennis Fitzpatrick became the University of Lethbridge's first associate vice-president of research in 1999. Ten years later, the University of Lethbridge is recognized on provincial, national and international stages for its research excellence.

"Now when I go to meetings, people talk about Alberta's three research universities," says Fitzpatrick, who became vice-president (research) in 2004. "This was a very important milestone for us, and reaching it took a lot of hard work by many people."

It took, quite literally, an institutional transformation. Over the last decade, the University of Lethbridge has evolved from a small and very successful primarily undergraduate university to a research-intensive, comprehensive university with a focus on both undergraduate and graduate studies.

"The University of Lethbridge of today would not be a reality without Dr. Fitzpatrick's extraordinary efforts and vision," says U of L President Dr. Bill Cade. "He is the institutional face for research in the community, and he has worked tirelessly recruiting researchers, building infrastructure, developing programs and bringing in funding. He has played a vital role in the history of the University of Lethbridge, and the impacts of his work will continue to be seen well into the future."

In June 2009, Fitzpatrick concludes his second term as vice-president (research). As a result of his "think-big, shoot-high and don't-be-afraid-to-ask" philosophy, research funding at the University of Lethbridge has soared a phenomenal 610 per cent over the last 10 years, and the University has celebrated many significant achievements.

Last fall, the U of L became the inaugural recipient of the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Polaris Award, which brought Dr. Bruce McNaughton, one of the world's foremost experts in neurophysiology, and $20 million in research funding to the U of L's Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN). The Polaris Award recognizes the excellence of the U of L's neuroscience programs. It is also the culmination of many years of work for Fitzpatrick, who was key in the first Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) grants that built the CCBN in 2001 and resulted in its expansion in 2006.

Also in 2008, the U of L proudly opened the Alberta Water and Environmental Science Building, a state-of-the-art facility where a team of world-renowned scientists are addressing the most pressing issues facing water and the environment – another pinnacle point for Fitzpatrick, who was central to the Water Institute for Semi-Arid Ecosystems initiative, the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Water Research and the fundraising to enable the water science building.

"In each of these initiatives, Dennis demonstrated patience, persistence and a firm belief in our faculty and students," says Dr. Stewart Rood, a U of L Board of Governors Research Chair and 2008 recipient of the Killam Research Fellowship. "His extensive representation at the regional, provincial and national levels has enabled our maturation into a nationally-recognized centre for water research."

Water is one drop in a very deep pool of leading research programs at the U of L. The University's capacity to conduct research in the social sciences, health sciences and humanities has exploded over the last 10 years, and multidisciplinary teams who are working on large-scale network projects are springing up across campus.

Fitzpatrick was instrumental in the development of the University's Community of Research Excellence Development Opportunities (CREDO) initiative, a new grant program for researchers in the social sciences, humanities, fine arts, education and management, as well as the Board of Governors University Scholars' Chairs.

"The University of Lethbridge is such that you have to find ways to make everyone as successful as possible," Fitzpatrick says. "A comprehensive university is like a chair. It can't sit on one leg. You have to have a vibrant and thriving research culture in all areas."

An accomplished biological scientist, Fitzpatrick came to the U of L from the University of Manitoba where he was the head of the Department of Foods and Nutrition.

"I was looking to do something different – something that would amplify my own natural tendency to build programs," he says.

Maintaining that research is a people business, Fitzpatrick began by building the Research Services office.

"I brought in a number of very, very capable individuals who could help researchers realize their dreams and enable the University to develop significant programming along with the infrastructure to support it," he says. "University research is driven by the people who provide these services."

He then went on to fill the U of L's allocation of Canada Research Chairs (CRC), which was eight at the time but has since increased to nine.

"If you look at where we have put the CRCs, they have really been transformative," he says.

The U of L's tremendous success in research, Fitzpatrick says, ultimately comes down to spirit.

"Small universities are at an incredible disadvantage in getting research funding. They have heavier teaching loads and less infrastructure, yet they have a commitment to participate in research regionally, nationally and globally, and they find ways do to it," he says. "And that's the spirit at the U of L."

As Fitzpatrick wraps up his last few months at the helm, the University of Lethbridge can take great pride in how far it has come over the last 10 years and set its sights even higher for the years ahead knowing that Fitzpatrick has already laid a firm foundation for the future. Programs like the Alberta Epigenetics Initiative and the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy will be pivotal in taking research at the U of L to the next level.

"It's been an incredible privilege to take part in the transformation of the University of Lethbridge," Fitzpatrick says. "It's been an opportunity of a lifetime."