Q & A with Advisory Panel Member Tim McTiernan

Tim McTiernan is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology

How has university research touched your life outside of work?

Twice when I was in the Canadian north – I’m pretty sure that our clothing was the difference between my wife and I getting hypothermia and not getting hypothermia. Once we were at the summit of the Chilkoot Trail when a major storm rolled in. Our backpacking stove gave up so we had no warm food and we were miserably wet. In the other instance we were a day away from the trailhead in Kluane National Park. The marshy ground we walked through on the way in was almost waist deep in water when we were coming out. We were wearing Gore-Tex clothes. The chemistry underlying the coating of the clothing was developed by Wilbert Gore [University of Utah] and his son Robert [University of Delaware]. It made the difference between an uncomfortable situation, and a really serious, dangerous situation.

Many people perceive university research as valuable, but unconnected to everyday life. How accurate do you think that perception is?

All one needs to do is deconstruct one’s daily activities to understand where research has made a difference. It’s in everything from pasteurization and how it affects safety of milk, to some of the safety features in a car, subway or bus, to medical treatments, to standards around environmental protection.

Our whole world is latticed with the impact of research.

Governments, businesses and NGOs all do research. How do universities fit into this picture?

The foundational nature of much university research sets in place the knowledge base from which applications can be developed and derived. Quantum theory, for instance, created the base for algorithmsengineering equations that are used in cryptographyaeronautics and other areas. The work that led the development of lasers creation of digital cameras was a serendipitous application of university research. When you look at the underpinnings of most technology, the foundation is in work that was started in universities.

Perhaps most underrated aspect of university research is how it involves large groups of graduate and undergraduate students. It’s a profoundly intense internship program. Those students bring those research and problem solving skills into the workplace. That makes them more knowledge-rich employees.

Many university researchers devote entire careers to a single question. Is that strange?

I think people understand the “grand challenge” notion. “We’ll populate Mars.” “We’ll put a person on the moon.” “I want to discover a route to the Far East, (and suddenly we’re in the Caribbean).” University researchers set their own grand challenges. Public policy can support the best of those individuals, but it’s not public policy’s role to set those challenges.

They’re part of a process. If they can set a building block and add to the body of knowledge that lets their students – and their students’ students continue, that is valuable.

How does a university like UOIT contribute to communities?

We have a core of research faculty members who do pretty amazing foundational research but also have an eye to practical applications. We study the effects of drug molecules – the kinds of things people flush when they don’t finish a prescription – on the biology of fish species. We have an engineering faculty that has at its disposal (among other things) a massive, state-of-the-art, climatically-variable wind tunnel which is used to research everything from automobiles to buildings and equipment used in harsh climatesother structures. We work with the auto sector and the energy sector, and SME manufacturersthe film industry also increasingly uses it as a studio.

In health sciences, education faculty, business, and social science and humanities, we have applied research projects that involve close work with community, health care and social service organizations. We work on issues of poverty, efficacy of hospital equipment, serious gaming with business applications, and IT security. Our researchers also help build the local community because they are a part of it.