A Science Makeover at Concordia University

Concordia University is striving to be recognized as a leading institution for scientific research and education. Thirty years after its establishment, the Montreal school is in the midst of dramatically building its teaching and research programs, particularly in its science departments. Centered on the construction of a new $85 million science complex, Concordia's science makeover has resulted in the hiring of young faculty and the creation of new graduate science programs in genomics and biotechnology. "We're trying to pick and build in certain niches, so we can be the best in those niches," says June Chaikelson, dean of arts and science at Concordia University. "It truly is very exciting times at Concordia now."

According to Chaikelson, Concordia's key strategy for building its graduate science programs has been to choose programs that are both in demand and complimentary to the offerings of other universities in its region. Along with the obvious advantages, this approach keeps Concordia in line with government mandates and the desires of Quebec's other universities: All new programs must be approved by a joint committee of all the Quebec universities and signed off on by the ministry of education. "The government doesn't want institutions to just add programs that are duplicates of others," Chaikelson explains.

Over the decades, Concordia has established undergraduate-to-Ph.D. science programs in four general areas: biology, chemistry and biochemistry, mathematics and statistics, and psychology. Each of these disciplines has flourished on its own, but the September 2003 opening of the Richard Renaud Science Complex has united students and faculty of the different departments like never before--under one roof. The five-story, state-of-the-art, open-concept facility encourages free interaction between scientists from different disciplines. "People meet, they talk--the new complex has generated very interesting interdisciplinary project proposals," says Chaikelson.

New Programs

There's a lot of excitement surrounding the new graduate diploma program in biotechnology and genomics. This new, 1-year, nonthesis program concentrates on structural and functional genomics as well as the ethical, legal, and social implications of the associated technology. The program is run by the biology department's Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics facility, which is housed in the new science building.

Justin Powlowski, director of the program and a biochemistry faculty member, points out that the new program is unique. It's not a master's or Ph.D. program; rather, it is designed to provide hands-on, real-world experience for those who already have an undergraduate degree but wish to receive additional and more-specialized training. An important part of the program is a 2-day-per-week, yearlong project course, which places students within research labs in institutions around Montreal. "I think a lot of people after they do their undergraduate degrees want to have more lab experience because when they go looking for jobs, the more lab experience the better," says Powlowski.

Powlowski believes that although the program provides the necessary experience for work in the private sector, it also serves another function: It provides great preparation for students who decide to go on to a graduate degree program by offering a healthy dose of advanced courses and lab work that can't be found at the undergraduate level.

"The things that we're doing in the laboratory are quite advanced, things like working with microarrays and doing proteomic work," says Powlowski. "It's basically a program that could be a steppingstone to graduate work, and I think that the feeling here is that it would be good to get good grounding in coursework and lab skills."

Recently launched in September 2004, the genomics and biotechnology program currently has six students enrolled, but the intention is to see it grow to 15 to 20 within the next 2 years, with a long-term goal of 40 students. Powlowski sees a bright future for genomics study at Concordia; although nothing has been put on the table yet, they hope to be adding M.Sc. and Ph.D. programs in the near future.

Speaking of the Future ...

Other programs on the rise at Concordia are exercise science and physics. The administration plans to expand the current research program in clinical exercise physiology and therapy to offer a master's degree by autumn 2005 and possibly to introduce a Ph.D. program later on.

Meanwhile, the physics department is going through a rebuilding phase. Four years ago Concordia took the radical step of closing enrollment in their physics program because the faculty felt that the program was getting dated and needed an overhaul. The undergraduate program has now been revamped and will reopen later this year. The school is also moving toward developing a unique interdisciplinary program in biophysics that establishes connections among physics, biology, and chemistry. In preparation, the school has opened one new position in biophysics and is looking to hire.

New Blood

Concordia has hired almost 200 new faculty members in the arts and sciences since 1998; 42 tenure-track positions were filled in 2004 alone. Since 1997, 36% of the hires have been in biology and 47% in chemistry. Eight new positions are anticipated in biology and chemistry in the near future. Chaikelson is quick to point out that these numbers mean that nearly half of the current faculty is new; they represent, he says, the "changing face for the institution."

According to Powlowski, the next generation offers fresh new perspectives on scientific ideas and generates a lot of good dynamics and high energy on campus. "Younger people are enthusiastic and are very aware of the latest techniques," says Powlowski. "I think that one of the things that we look for is the interdisciplinary aspect, that they're willing to work with people outside their immediate departments."

The full-time faculty hiring in the last 4 years has led to a 100% increase in research funding. This past year alone, the faculty has been awarded nearly $14 million in new research grants from major provincial and federal agencies. According to a board of governors' report released last fall, the goal is to increase the faculty's annual external research funding to $50 million within a few years.

With such increases on the horizon, more graduate students are expected as well. Currently 56 graduate students are enrolled in biology, 56 in biochemistry, 56 in mathematics, and 133 in psychology. Concordia offers a fellowship package of $20,000 per year by means of a combination of departmental teaching and research assistantships and grants from external agencies. The university views the teaching component as an important part of the educational, as well as the financial, package.

"In the real world of research you have to deal with people at all levels, and this teaching experience allows me to learn how to communicate effectively at different levels," says Vineet Dua, a Ph.D. student in biology. "This is part and parcel if you want to go on in a career in academia."

According to Dua, who studies the genomics of fungi that degrade paper, Concordia has given him a chance to work on cutting-edge research. Part of his project gets him working side by side with research scientists at one of North America's leading pulp and paper corporations located in Montreal. He says he feels that he is learning how research is done outside of academia and is also getting a taste of the business side of things. "I originally had a lot of great ideas on industrial applications of my research, but over the course of the last year I realized that much of it was irrelevant--a big reality check for me but a great learning experience."

"Part of my career goal is to land a job in industry, so this kind of exposure to industry is extremely valuable," he adds. "This combination of teaching and research off-campus is something that I feel will give me a distinct advantage in my career."

The new science complex is breathing new life into Concordia and has set the stage for it to become a world-class research facility. The new wave of incoming early-career faculty members has invigorated the programs and research. At Concordia, science's next wave has arrived.

"Energy level is fantastic here, people are starting their careers, they're gung-ho, and there's much more adaptation to change, they're not bound by tradition anymore," says Chaikelson.

For more information on Concordia's Graduate Science programs, check out their Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.

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