Setting the Standard

May 27, 2004, vol. 30, no. 3

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Rachel Forbes, Peter Liljedahl, Iain McKenzie, Gurbir Dhadwal and David Press have all excelled academically, earning the university's highest academic accolades.

Rachel Forbes
Peter Liljedahl
Iain McKenzie
Gurbir Dhadwal
David Press

Rachel Forbes

Blizzards, hailstorms, downpours? Nothing nature can conjure compares to the white-knuckled experience of driving past signs trumpeting yet another hike in the price of gasoline.

It makes Rachel Forbes smile.

The Gordon Shrum gold medal winner has a refined sensibility when it comes to the environment and a keen intellectual grasp of the political, social and economic forces that have historically relegated the Earth to also-ran status in the public conscience.

High gas prices, says Forbes who won the medal honouring the best all-round student, are something to celebrate. “It's about time our economic pricing reflected the actual costs of the damage we do to ecological and social systems.” (Forbes does drive a car, admitting that her inner ecologist cringes at the pumps.)

Not unexpectedly, Forbes has designs on environmental law as a means to influence public policy initiatives that will decrease the industrial-revolution excess that has blighted the planet for more than a century.

Lofty aspirations, but Forbes' intensity, energy and focus match her ambitions. Besides achieving stellar undergraduate marks in geography and communications, Forbes reported for and wrote opinion columns in The Peak and spent time with many other campus groups.

For example, she plays a key volunteer role in UniverCity community development, chairing the student society's Burnaby Mountain development working group, which pushes for things like affordable housing. She is also the student representative to the SFU Community Trust board of directors where isues related to the UniverCity community are addressed.

Forbes has been a multiple-scholarship recipient ever since graduating with honours from Pender Harbour secondary school on the Sunshine Coast. She is also a published poet and an advocate for active democracy.

Peter Liljedahl

Peter Liljedahl probed the great mathematical minds of the world to learn more about the actual moment when math suddenly makes sense.

His exploration of what is known as the Aha! experience was carried out to determine its relevance for improving the teaching of mathematical problem solving.

His work has been described as impressive and ground-breaking doctoral research. His thesis passed with no revisions. It also positioned Liljedahl as the winner of SFU's highest graduate award, the Governor General's gold medal.

Liljedahl's efforts have also culminated in a tenure-track assistant professorship in SFU's faculty of education. He plans to both teach and carry on with his research in mathematics education.

“I work in the area of how problem-solving and discovery can affect students' cognitive and affective domains - that is, what do they learn, and how does learning through this mode impact on their beliefs and attitudes about mathematics, as well as their ability to do mathematics,” says Liljedahl.

“By distilling the essence of these experiences we can make use of them in the classroom, creating better mathematical experiences for students,” adds the former math teacher, who also competed for Sweden in the single canoe race at the 1992 Olympics.

“Math is typically perceived as being a highly logical and deductive field of activity, but the truth is, there are all sorts of non-logical processes involved, such as intuition, creativity, insight, and imagination.”

Iain McKenzie

Iain McKenzie admits he was a bit of a slouch as an undergraduate, but he has more than made up for lost time.

“Early on I was fairly lax,” confesses the winner of the Governor General's gold medal in science for his stellar academic record in graduate school. “It was only upon entering grad school that I came up with a research project that really stimulated my imagination and productivity.”

What inspired the 27-year-old chemist was a fascination with the effect of mass on the structure and dynamics of molecules, particularly free radicals, which are generally short lived and difficult to study. At the TRIUMF cyclotron facility located at UBC, he produced organic free radicals labelled with muonium, a light hydrogen isotope, allowing researchers to see isotope effects that are too small to observe using conventional, deuterium labelling.

Working at TRIUMF, Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, “was a lot fun,” says the Ottawa native who moved to south Surrey as a teenager and finished high school at Semiahmoo secondary school. “It brought out the science nerd qualities in me.”

Once those qualities kicked in, McKenzie was on a roll. He produced what his PhD supervisor Paul Percival calls “a superb thesis” only four years after completing his bachelor of science. What's more, says Percival, “it is astounding that he already has 12 journal papers to his credit, with several more in preparation.”

McKenzie begins a two-year Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) postgraduate fellowship in June at the University of Stuttgart.

Gurbir Dhadwal

Gurbir Dhadwal was born in a small town and he plans to live and work in a small town, ideally as a small-town family doctor.

“It's so much different than living in the city,” says the Governor General's silver medal winner in science from Golden, B.C. (population 4,300), where he is awaiting approval to enter UBC medical school this fall.
Golden secondary school “had only 500 students and I remember at my first SFU class there were almost as many students in one room. It was pretty overwhelming.”

All his friends at university are from small towns too, says Dhadwal, who lived in residence. “Almost everyone living there is from smaller communities. They have similar life experiences, the same culture shock at being in the city and they know what you're going through, so there is a natural attraction.”

There's nothing small about Dhadwal's academic qualifications, however, with a 4.24 cumulative grade point average and 14 awards and scholarships to his credit so far.

Still, he says, “my academic experience was almost secondary to my social activities,” which included intramural volleyball and the biology student union. But his abiding passion was the Golden Key international honour society.

The society, with more than 2,000 members on campus, “was a perfect blend of community service and social events,” says Dhadwal.

David Press

Winning the Governor General's silver medal for top undergraduate in 2003-04 with the highest marks in the engineering school's 21-year history would propel most students to the mountaintop with pride.

But David Press has his sights set on even loftier achievements, both inside and outside the classroom.

In addition to plans for a career in academia, the Victoria native and Belmont secondary school honours grad dreams of climbing some of the great mountains of the world. He has been a passionate mountaineer since age 15, when he joined the Alpine Club of Canada and seldom misses an opportunity to climb.

“He's off wandering around Europe until the fall and didn't bring his climbing gear with him,” says father Murray Press, “though I suspect he'll end up on a few mountains anyway.”

But it is Press's academic prowess - garnering a near-perfect 4.33 cumulative grade point average and a backpack full of awards and scholarships - that clearly elevates him above his peers, says engineering school director Mehrdad Saif. “David is the most talented student to ever go through our school.”

Press conducted much of the research for his bachelor's thesis last year at Stanford University as part of his co-op. His dissertation was impressive enough, according to one teacher, to earn him a master's degree in science or electrical engineering from any North American university, says Saif.
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