Taking the Pulse


SFU’s newest vice-president focuses on the health of university research

Joy Johnson was in her early 20s with only a few years’ experience working as a nurse in rural British Columbia when she moved to Vancouver to take a position in the intensive care unit of St. Paul’s Hospital. It was 1984, and the emergency ward was just beginning to admit a steady trickle of robust young men who were being felled by serious illnesses.

“The AIDS epidemic was just starting,” says Johnson, SFU’s new vice-president of research, who comes to SFU from the University of British Columbia where she was a professor in the School of Nursing as well as scientific director for the Institute of Gender and Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Eventually, says Johnson, the staff at St. Paul’s found themselves caring for colleagues as the AIDS epidemic swept through the community.

Johnson’s unwavering commitment to patients during those arduous years foretold the rest of her professional career, embracing – and excelling at –  challenges others would find daunting. Johnson, SFU’s first female vice-president of research, has always opted for the more demanding path, being a trailblazer, innovator, and leader in whatever area of academia or the medical profession she has pursued. This determination has garnered her several awards and distinctions, including a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal acknowledging her groundbreaking efforts to have sex and gender taken into account in scientific research.

Johnson has just passed the six-month mark of her executive appointment and is working out how to balance the expectations of SFU’s community of researchers. Her first step is learning about the innovations and original research underway on all three SFU campuses, in addition to meeting with those whose academic careers ebb or flow in accordance with available research funds.

Her next step will be to determine how the university can maximize its support for these activities while formulating a new strategic research plan that builds on the strength of the portfolio that she inherited from her predecessor, Mario Pinto, the new president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). She is already leading the development of a comprehensive institutional strategy for innovation and entrepreneurship and assisting with a national effort to increase global recognition of Canada’s research excellence.

Universities across Canada today operate with a dearth of funding. There is never enough money to go around and, at SFU – undergrad and grad students, post-docs and professors – all must compete for a share of the lean research pie. It is true that SFU is in an enviable position among post-secondary institutions, being one of 20 Canadian universities awarded more than $100 million a year in sponsored funding. As befits Canada’s top comprehensive university (according to Maclean’s annual university rankings), this funding supports research in a broad range of fields ranging from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to the humanities and social sciences. (Slightly more than 40 percent of SFU’s research dollars, or $42 million, comes from the Tri-Council: NSERC funds STEM, the CIHR funds health, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada funds humanities and social sciences. The other 60 percent, or about $60 million, is derived from various government agencies as well as non-governmental grants and contracts.)

Johnson champions the value of all disciplines. A university is strengthened by strong scholarship in the sciences as well as social sciences and humanities, she says. Johnson experienced this firsthand when the University of Alberta undertook a radical initiative in 1988, offering the country’s first-ever PhD program in nursing to three outstanding scholars, one of them being Johnson herself.

She had just completed a master’s program in nursing at U of A, exploring gender differences in men’s and women’s experiences of heart attack. For her PhD, Johnson took an almost 180-degree turn. Her doctorate was philosophical, steeped in epistemology, and addressed the craft of artful nursing. “It allowed me to think about the nature, scope, and object of nursing. I thought it would make me a better thinker – and it did.” But, sitting “in your armchair thinking about things is quite solitary,” she adds, and so Johnson returned to empirical research for her post-doc at UBC’s Institute of Health Promotion Research, where once again she analyzed the objective and subjective aspects of health care.

Illness, Johnson realized, is as much a social phenomenon as a physical one. Treatment and eventual patient outcomes depend as much on the environment and social and economic status of patients as on the standard of care they receive in hospital. “I can teach a heart patient about diet, but if their income is such that they can’t afford fresh vegetables, they will be in difficulty,” she says.

Johnson’s research illuminated how health care outcomes could be improved, which led to her publishing a remarkable 170 papers in peer-reviewed journals. Her work also resulted in the creation of the Nursing and Health Behaviour Research Unit at UBC, which drew funding from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. From this emerged NEXUS, a multidisciplinary unit for health promotion research that explored the connection (the “nexus”) between complex external influences and health behaviour. In six years, NEXUS, co-led by Johnson, developed international programs for research into tobacco and substance abuse, sexual health, rural and remote health, cancers, and men’s and women’s heart health.

When NEXUS was closed in 2009 due to a lack of funding, Johnson took on the role at CIHR. This institute works with the Canadian research community and stakeholders to foster integrated, innovative, and impactful gender, sex, and health research, work that required Johnson to fly back and forth between Vancouver and Ottawa for seven years.

Now, as SFU’s vice-president of research, Johnson’s focus will be the health of university research. And just as patient health is affected by the environment, so too is research. Post-secondary funding trends are dictated in large part by national priorities that target applied areas, such as neurodegeneration and aging. This means that while budgets for research are increasing, these funds are restricted in their purpose. Says Johnson, “this is part of the dynamic right now and researchers are deeply concerned about sustained research funding, particularly for basic research.”

Pragmatic, yes, but that doesn’t mean Johnson won’t find creative ways to support research and scholarship across all disciplines at SFU. Her established networks within the research community after years in Ottawa with the CIHR, combined with SFU’s solid track record of developing partnerships, facilitating innovation, and engaging communities, SFU’s research future is bright rather than bleak, she says.

Photography by Greg Ehlers