According to the research

Professors are taking part in groundbreaking research outside of your classroom

Queen’s, while commonly known for its excellence in undergraduate degrees, is also home to some of the most cutting edge research in Canada
Queen’s, while commonly known for its excellence in undergraduate degrees, is also home to some of the most cutting edge research in Canada
Photo: 

You can’t have teaching without research and vice versa, according to John Smol.

Smol, a professor in the department of biology, is one of five top researchers at the University who have collectively received $1.3 million in research grants through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund.

“We often hear about the difference between research and teaching, but my view is that the two are closely linked,” Smol said.

“Research is knowledge creation, and teaching is knowledge communication ― it's hard to do one without the other: there’s no point in making it if you’re not communicating it.”

The four others who received the grants were Douglas Cook in neurosurgery, Carlos Escobedo in chemical engineering, Ryan Mulligan in civil engineering, Ron Spronk in art history and Alex Wright in physics.

Research happens in every Queen’s Faculty. From the physics department’s study of particle astrophysics in an underground laboratory, to the psychology department’s work on bullying and the Faculty of Education’s work on music in education, there’s groundbreaking and innovative research being done at the University.

Smol, for one, researches the history of lakes. He looks at sediments and fossils from deeper levels of a lake and gathers any information available from these rocks, compiling them into historical data.

“One of the biggest problems is that we don’t have long-term monitoring data. We don’t know how lakes have changed because no one was checking what the pH or oxygen levels were in the 1930s,” he said.

His highly relevant and recent research project ― funded by the Strategic Project Grant by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) with a three-year $365,200 fund ― is using paleolimnological approaches to look at lake trout, an important fish to the economy, to help prevent the further decline of these lakes.

“This is the type of research that can inform public policy,” he said. “It’s important to use science-based policy and we hope this will contribute to using evidence-based policy for future government decisions on how to manage ecosystems.”

Last semester, Smol taught two courses, but isn’t currently teaching at the moment while he holds the position of Canada Research Chair.

Another grant receiver is Ana Maria da Silva, a professor of civil engineering specializing in environmental fluid mechanics, fluvial hydraulics and river engineering.

Her latest project, funded by the Strategic Project Grant by NSERC at $469,000 over three years, looks at the long-term effects of oil spills in rivers in light of the pipelines and increased oil production from the oil sands in Alberta.

“Queen’s is a great place to research,” she said. “It really helps researchers to do their job. They’re very supportive.”

She noted that research is what ensures our development as humans and the economic development of the country, therefore it’s important that Canada invests in research and is competitive with other countries.

“Our lives are supported by rivers and lakes in the sense that we need water for water supply and we use water for recreation, we use it to produce power,” she said.

“As we do this and we develop human activities, we have to do so in a way that we respect the natural environment of the river.”

While the short-term effects of oil spills in rivers are obvious, the long-term effects are more unknown, so getting data on the topic is important, she said.

Part of da Silva’s research has shown that oil spills in fresh water are more damaging than in open waters, because the oil in the sea can spread over a large area, whereas in a river it can’t. Her work quantifies the long-term effects of the oil penetrating into the riverbed sediments where many fish, like salmon, live and reproduce.

However, this research doesn’t stay separate from the classroom ― professors bring their knowledge into the classroom to better their teaching and push students to innovate and create.

In addition to her research, da Silva teaches two graduate and two undergraduate classes.

“Research makes me learn more, so it makes me a much better teacher,” she said. “I think if I wasn’t [for] research I wouldn’t be able to find teaching that exciting.”

Research is a priority for Queen’s, according to Steven Liss, vice-principal of research.

“You wouldn’t have a university without research,” he said.

Queen’s ranked 12th in the November 2013 edition of Research Infosource's list of top research universities. The University of Toronto came in first place with the University of British Columbia and Université de Montréal following.

“Our size and a scale is an aspect you’ve got to keep in mind when you look at other universities,” he said.

Queen’s is considered a medium-size university as opposed to a larger one. With large universities come larger enrolment numbers, which can mean more resources and funding ― from tuition to bigger government grants.

Liss said he believes the balance Queen’s maintains between teaching and research makes the University an outstanding institution.

“Some of our best teachers are some of our best researchers,” he said.

Faculty are supported and pushed to look beyond the horizon, ensuring they are satisfied and innovative in the research they are doing.

“We attract the best professors in the world ― that’s our aspiration at least ― and to do so we need to ensure our faculty are excited about the work they are doing and the teaching they are doing.”

Funding and finances are also an integral part of research at any higher learning institution.

According to Research Infosource, Queen’s made $168,025,000 in research income in 2012, a 2.9 per cent increase from the previous year.

In terms of finances, the University counts their research income to quantify their research activity.

While research revenue is important, it isn’t about profit, Liss said. Instead, it’s about funding equipment for students and supporting research needs like libraries and labs, supplies and other resources.

Another indicator of research success is the number of publications where Queen’s researchers’ papers and books are co-authored with international authors. This indicates international stature, which is becoming increasingly important, according to Liss.

He added that Queen’s ranks among the top Canadian schools in international collaboration, denoting our international relevancy.

“Increasingly, we have to be more focused internationally because there are only so many opportunities for resources in this country.”

Matthew Scribner, information officer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) local 901, said that Queen’s is a research intensive university and the students they represent are integral to the innovation going on at the institution.

PSAC is a union that bargains on behalf of TAs, TFs and post-doc researchers at Queen’s.

A new collective agreement, featuring overall wage increases, was just signed with the University for graduate teaching assistants and teaching fellows.

PSAC strives to make sure all their members are getting fair treatment and having a good researching experience at Queen’s.

“While different researchers have different experiences, I’d say that Queen’s does have a good reputation across Canada and that is born out by many of the amazing things people are doing,” Scribner said.

“However, whatever research Queen’s does it doesn’t just come from faculty and post-docs; grad students are contributing to original research,” he said.

Scribner also noted that Queen’s new time completion rule for researching students is putting a strain on students who need more time.

“Research should be a curiosity-driven process,“ he said, adding that he’s concerned that finance and time constraints are affecting and limiting the research being done.

“Queen’s is part of a wider trend, across Canada for sure, where there is a greater commercialization of research and that is eroding curiosity-driven research,” Scribner said.

Corrections

January 15, 2014

This article has been edited to correct the spelling of Matthew Scribner's name and to add that Scribner works for PSAC local 901 - a detail omitted during initial publication. The Journal regrets the errors.

The Journal regrets the error.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.