Rare event celebrated

May 30, 2002, vol. 24, no. 3
By Carol Thorbes

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Graduation is a time to celebrate the achievements of students, but this convocation a Simon Fraser University professor is celebrating a rare event akin to the conjunction of planets.

Rolf Mathewes (center) is witnessing the graduation of two doctoral students and a master's student whose theses he supervised, and his eldest daughter from the school of communication.

“I've been a professor at SFU since 1975. In all that time I've never had more than two of my students graduating at the same time,” explains Mathewes, a professor of biological sciences and the associate dean of science. “To have three students, plus my daughter, Kimberley, receiving their degrees simultaneously is like the rare passage of Halley's comet to me!”

Why should a quadruple graduation be such a rare event? Mathewes notes professors in costly fields such as the sciences can rarely afford to sponsor more than two or three graduate students a year.

It also takes most doctoral students four to five years to finish their degree, making the convergence of their convocations unlikely.

Mathewes says witnessing the simultaneous convocation of his graduate students is almost as joyful as watching his daughter cross convocation mall.

“As a senior supervisor, you are a bit like a parent watching the maturation of your students into respected researchers,” reflects Mathewes, the recipient of a 1987 excellence in teaching award.

All three of Mathewes' graduating students, Jonathan Hughes (left), Douglas Hallett and Sandra Rosenberg, say he was highly recommended to them as a senior supervisor.

Master's graduand Rosenberg credits Mathewes with helping her “greatly improve the scope and clarity of her thesis on past environments in southern B.C.'s sub-alpine lakes.”

Hughes, Mathewes' first doctoral student from the U.S, speaks highly of his senior supervisor's ability to cultivate confidence in his graduate students.

“Gaining the ability to have confidence in my opinion was the most substantial impact Rolf had on my professional development,” says Hughes, a pioneer in the use of plant remains to evaluate earthquake history.

Hallett adds, “Rolf sparked my curiosity in climate change and forest fires.” The doctoral graduand's thesis on the historical connection between climate changes and forest fires in southwestern B.C.'s sub-alpine mountain hemlock rainforests has led to a postdoctoral fellowship at Northern Arizona University.

As for Mathewes' daughter, who is receiving her BA in communication, she admires her father's passion for science, but gets a little nervous about his sense of humour.

Worries Kimberley, “I hope he's not serious when he threatens to jump up in his big purple hat and hug me on stage during graduation.”

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