Exemplary research + engaged students = extraordinary results

There were hints that this was coming.

It is no secret that the University of Lethbridge has undergone a cultural shift and been making major inroads as a comprehensive university on both the provincial and national stage. Research institutes have been developed and supported, leading researchers have been actively recruited and research activity now percolates at all levels (undergraduate and graduate alike) and across disciplines.

But when RE$EARCH Infosource tagged the U of L as Canada's Research University of the Year (2012), Undergraduate Category, it elevated the University from an emerging comprehensive institution to one of Canada's most influential research universities.

Dr. H.J. Wieden and his iGEM team is an excellent example of the undergraduate research activity that takes place on the U of L campus.

Dr. Dan Weeks, the University's vice-president (research), is the first to admit that the rise to number one did not happen overnight and is not attributable to one factor.

Statistics tell part of the tale. The University saw a huge rise in research income over the past year (38.7 per cent), and that growth was the third best of any university in the country. But the U of L story has never been about numbers, and instead is rooted in the community of people who make up the University.

"A research portfolio must be built strategically, over time, and with support throughout the University," he says. "It is also dependent on the hard work of faculty members who consistently demonstrate that they are among the very best researchers in Canada. They not only excel in research, but actively engage students in research opportunities that foster the next generation of researchers and innovators."

Therein lies the uniqueness that is the U of L. Undergraduate students are exposed to research opportunities often only available to graduate and PhD level students at other institutions. It's what brought Jennifer Arthur (BA '07, MSc '12) to the U of L, and also what kept her in Lethbridge for her master's studies.

"I could have gone anywhere for university, but I chose the University of Lethbridge specifically for the undergraduate research opportunities available to students," says Arthur, who graduated with her Master of Science in Health Sciences earlier this year. "My experiences in Dr. Glen Prusky's (BASc '86) visual plasticity lab and Dr. Martin Lalumiere's psychophysiology lab gave me the discovery and application piece of my education and prepared me for my master's degree."

The University does not see teaching and research as distinct entities, rather it fosters an atmosphere where its teachers bring their research into the classroom, helping develop the critical thinking and practical research skills today's students deem essential.

Weeks points to programs such as iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) and AMETHYST (Advanced Methods, Education and Training in Hyperspectral Science and Technology) as examples of student-focused research initiatives that create a new generation of researchers who go on to strengthen Alberta's knowledge-based economy.

"The outcomes from these programs are significant and will benefit students and the University community for years to come," says Weeks. "What excites me is the potential employment success for graduates who participate in these programs and what they prepare our students for in their careers."

The U of L proudly boasts world-renowned researchers in traditionally scientific fields such as neuroscience, the study of water and physics, but a university does not achieve status as the top undergraduate research institution in the country without diversity in its portfolio. Indeed, it is the breadth of research across the full gamut of disciplines that speaks to a campus-wide philosophy where discovery is valued and supported at every turn.

Weeks points to the establishment of internal research and development funds as potential drivers of research activity going forward. He also highlights the allocation of specific funds for the development of interdisciplinary research teams. The anticipated result will be synergies across disciplines.

The Interdisciplinary Research Development Fund (IRDF), a one-time non-renewable research fund, was created to provide the foundation for developing the next generation of interdisciplinary concentrations of research excellence. In spring 2012, it funded three projects (up to $100,000 each over two years), then approved two more proposals in the fall.

"There is a real breadth to the research activities taking place across campus," says Weeks. "With the establishment of a number of internal funding mechanisms in recent years, it has served as the impetus for new research initiatives that are now being recognized by external agencies. Couple that with the many faculty who already have well established research portfolios and it creates an even more vibrant research environment."

The U of L now boasts nine research centres and institutes that address issues across the sciences, social sciences and humanities. From neuroscience research at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience, to water management studies in the Water Institute for Sustainable Environments and the study of childhood in the newly established Institute for Child and Youth Studies, U of L research is multidisciplinary and relevant to today's world issues.

"The problems being addressed by U of L researchers are helping to create a better quality of life for local and global communities," says President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Mike Mahon. "While many factors have contributed to building this capacity, the exceptional work by current and former faculty has played a significant role in attracting additional world-leading researchers to the University, thereby expanding our research portfolio."

Where the University goes from here is the most exciting aspect, because as a teaching institution intent on training the next generation of researchers, the U of L is its own renewable knowledge resource. From a student perspective, this is great news.

"When I first started at the U of L nearly 10 years ago, there wasn't the breadth of formal opportunity for undergraduates to participate in research that there is today," says Arthur. "However, what was the same then as it is today, was the commitment of faculty and staff to engage students in a meaningful way and to encourage students in their research endeavours. "When I look at what is now available to students and how the University continues to enhance those research opportunities, as an alumna I am extremely proud of my University. This recognition is richly deserved."

This story first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of SAM. For a look at the full issue of SAM in a flipbook format, follow this link.