Guest blogger Tim Meagher shares his thoughts on the Undergraduate Research Symposium

There is a paragraph in the University of Calgary’s ‘Eyes High’ strategic plan that talks about enriching the quality and breadth of learning:

“At the University of Calgary, learning takes place in a research environment. Students will learn research skills through their courses, assignments, fieldwork and as members of research teams. As a result, they will be able to critically examine the world around them, generate new knowledge and be part of solving problems. We commit to prepare students with a portfolio of research projects that take them out into the community and the field. We will inspire learners by purposeful exposure to our best researchers and their research.”

This paragraph talks about engaging undergraduate students in research. They are not empty words, but rather a strategic priority. I can state that the most fulfilling parts of my education at the University of Calgary were opportunities in my third and fourth years to perform hands-on research projects.

The Students’ Union at our university also takes these words to heart. It annually coordinates an Undergraduate Research Symposium as a means to promote research and to encourage undergrads toward career paths of innovation and discovery. This year the research work of 103 students was presented and adjudicated in late November. At a reception and awards ceremony held on December 2, this outstanding research was showcased to the community and recognized with $22,000 of prize money.

Tim Meagher, a lawyer and University of Calgary Senator, attended the December 2 event on behalf of Senate. In this guest blog entry, Tim gives his thoughts about the Symposium. I am grateful to our Students’ Union for annually showcasing the best and brightest minds within our undergraduate population and to Tim for representing Senate at this year’s Symposium.

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It is always nice to experience something that exceeds your expectations, the memory of which lingers for days and which buoys your spirits.

That happened to me recently when I attended the University of Calgary’s Students’ Union Undergraduate Research Symposium awards reception as a Senate representative. It was a last minute sort of thing for me, and I was advised that the keynote speaker was going to be “Dr. Douglas Hamilton (former NASA Flight Surgeon and current W21C researcher)”. Because it was a last minute thing, I did not undertake my own research about the Symposium or Dr. Hamilton.

My lack of knowledge about the Symposium turned out to be a good thing because it meant I had lots to talk to the students about as I tried to learn about the Symposium and the students’ work. I talked to students, judges, and parents and learned that on November 26 the students presented the results of their research in a variety of fields on poster boards set up in Mac Hall. They were judged by faculty on content and on their ability to convey their results to the judges in a few minutes in a comprehensive fashion. While I am sure the judges did not need as much explanation as me, I can attest to the students’ ability to communicate difficult concepts.

Amongst others, I enjoyed talking with Amanda Calleberg who won an award from the Sustainable Energy Development Graduate Program for her research into the dissipation of heat from alternative mediums (I think I’ve got that right), and her proud mother. Both are graduates of St. Francis High School in Calgary.

When the awards’ ceremony started I chose my seat and introduced myself to the guy beside me. I asked him what his connection to the University was, and he told me that he was an alumnus. “Well, so am I,” I replied. I found out, when he was introduced, that he was the keynote speaker, Dr. Douglas Hamilton. He’s more than an alumnus; he is a “distinguished alumnus”.

Doug Hamilton has had many extraordinary experiences, some of which he relayed to us that evening, complete with slides and videos.

  • In 2003, he was working in Houston at NASA on the medical team when the space shuttle Columbia blew up while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, and he was part of the investigative efforts. Sadly, he lost some close friends in that incident.
  • In 2005 he was the night time lead of a medical team of 3000 that cared for the victims of hurricane Katrina in the Houston Astrodome. He has many lasting memories of that time but the most jarring was the comparison of the misfortune of the 30,000 people living in the Astrodome with the attendance and the frivolity at the Houston Texans football game at the new “Reliant Stadium” next door.
  • He was the lead flight surgeon for Robert Thirsk’s 188 days in space in 2009.
  • In 2010, Doug was part of the NASA team that helped design the capsule that rescued the 33 miners that had been trapped 750 meters underground in Chile. He explained that, because of his education at the University of Calgary he recognized a problem with the design of the method of bringing the miners to the surface. He assisted with an alternative design which allowed the rescue to proceed without losing anyone.

I was impressed by Doug’s sense of humility and service to others. I was struck by the fact that he has chosen to return to the University where he is a Clinical Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the ‘Ward of the 21st Century’ and an Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering.

He closed his presentation with a video tribute to the University concluding with a salute from him, Robert Thirsk, and their fellow University alumna Laura Lucier — presently a flight controller at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston — who each recited the University’s motto: Mo Shùle Togam Suas; I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes. The entire speech, ending with the repetition of the school’s motto was inspiring. As I say, it’s one of those experiences that sticks with you and that you reflect on for days afterwards.

The evening ended on a nice personal note. When my son was in kindergarten he made friends with a young Korean boy named Mark Lee who had just immigrated to Calgary; he spoke very little English. Over the years, I coached Mark in community soccer and basketball. He had received an award sponsored by the Graduate Students Association for his research about the distribution of wealth. I was proud to be in attendance to see him receive his award.

Tim

Mark Lee and I after the symposium

I became a senator because I wanted to be more involved with post-secondary education and because I am a proud Calgarian who thinks it is important for Calgary to have a top-notch university. I am still learning about the role of a senator, but my evening at the Symposium confirmed what I have thought before; sometimes the role of a senator is no less than being a witness to the terrific things that people connected with the University are accomplishing. That is a real privilege.

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