They're the Tops

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by Marianne Meadahl
Photograpy by Curtis Trent

Celebrating Shrum, gold, and silver winners

They are SFU’s highest achievers. Our best and brightest, honoured as recipients of the Gordon M. Shrum gold medal and the Government of Canada’s Governor General (GG) gold and silver medals.

The Shrum medal, established by SFU’s first chancellor, is awarded annually. The medal and $500 prize are given to a graduating undergraduate who maintains a high scholastic standing and who also shows outstanding qualities of character and unselfish devotion to SFU – values applauded by the late Shrum. An awards committee selects the recipient after consultation with faculty, staff, and student representatives.

The GG gold and silver medals are awarded on behalf of Canada’s Governor General, purely for academic excellence: the gold at the graduate level, and the silver at the undergraduate level. Established in 1873, the prize is considered one of the most prestigious awards that a student at a Canadian educational institution can receive.

So where do these top students go? Some break ground, like Nadine Caron (Shrum 1993), now a doctor in Prince George, B.C.’s first aboriginal surgeon. SFU also reaps benefits, netting Karen Marotz (GG gold medal, 1979), head librarian at the Belzberg Library at SFU Vancouver.

Here are some of the stories of other past winners.

Helen Augustin (Shrum 2002) <www.streetangels.ca>

Helen Augustin’s life changed after she was touched by an angel. She still has the little cherub, a plaster figure painted by a young mother in a Brazilian slum.

“I was working as an office temp while going to university,” recalls Augustin. “A woman had brought these angels made by young mothers and former ‘street boys.’ She was selling them and the money was being sent back to the community. I thought I’d like to be part of this.”

Augustin contacted Miriam Ulrych, founder and director of Street Angels, a Vancouver-based grassroots aid organization.

She then visited Dona Aurora in Bahia, Brazil, and knew she had found her niche.

“From the moment I arrived in the community I fell in love with the children,” says Augustin, who continued her volunteer work with the organization while completing her studies with top marks.

Augustin – now executive director of Street Angels – coordinates the work of its fostering education program. The program links children in the community with foster parents abroad, who help fund the children’s education and health needs with $40-a-month donations.

Helen Augustin's life changed after she was touched by an angel. She still has the little cherub, a plaster figure painted by a young mother in a Brazilian slum.

With some 200 children in the program, the task of nurturing relationships is huge. The local program coordinator conducts interviews with the families, and Augustin painstakingly translates them from Portuguese to keep foster parents informed of their children’s lives.

During Augustin’s most recent visit to Bahia last year, six houses were inaugurated for their latest program, the Street Angels Community Bank. The initiative provides home repair grants in exchange for community service. To date, 15 houses have been repaired.

As with all of their work in Bahia, the local people play an important role. “It’s so encouraging to meet the local women and see their response. They are so proud of what they’ve done for themselves and their community,” she says.

“It’s empowering for them. And it is encouraging for me.” Augustin hopes to eventually do her master’s thesis on the work in Bahia.

Yingfu Li (GG 1997)

After completing his PhD in biochemistry at SFU, Yingfu (Jeff) Li is cruising on an academic road that has yet to peak. Now he is a tenured professor at McMaster University, holder of a Canada Research Chair in the Directed Evolution of Nucleic Acids, and is one of the first scientists to study the creation of genetic material for use as enzymes to detect damaged genes or destroy cancer cells.

Li’s laboratory focuses on creating and studying DNA with interesting properties, including the ability to chew up RNA molecules or to disable disease-causing proteins.

Having created a variety of tiny DNA molecules with catalytic abilities – meaning they enable chemical reactions to occur much faster – his lab is using these tools in biomedical applications, including bio-sensing, disease control, and drug screening.

“Instead of relying on Mother Nature to supply us with DNA or RNA molecules for our study, we create them in our hands using test-tube evolution technologies on a time scale of weeks,” describes Li. “We then have a lot of fun getting them to do interesting things for us.”

Li’s passion for his research took root at SFU where he began in organic chemistry, then quickly switched his focus when he learned about a groundbreaking DNA project in its early stages in SFU’s department of molecular biology and biochemistry.

For his thesis project, he isolated a very small catalytic DNA enzyme, demonstrated its effectiveness, and characterized its properties in what his thesis supervisor, Professor Dipankar Sen, describes as “astonishing depth.”

Li’s discovery, reported in top international scientific journals, boosted research in the emerging field of DNA catalysis.

"SFU has a special place in my heart," says Li, who came to Canada from China with his wife, Hongjun, a chemist, in the early 1990s. They became Canadian citizens and have two daughters, Lin and Erica. "I grew into a world-class researcher there."

He continued his work at Yale, funded by a fellowship from the Medical Research Council of Canada. He might have stayed longer but decided to take the first professorship he could secure in Canada, joining McMaster in 1999.

“SFU has a special place in my heart,” says Li, who came to Canada from China with his wife, Hongjun, a chemist, in the early 1990s. They became Canadian citizens and have two daughters, Lin and Erica. “I grew into a world-class researcher there.”

Li believes his gold medal has helped advance his career. “It brings a self-motivation factor, because I know there were many deserving people who could have received the award. So I need to use my actions to make sure I was a good choice.”

Peter Doherty (Shrum 1973)

New Brunswick native Peter Doherty first glimpsed SFU on a beautiful day in June 1966. He was visiting his sister, after five years with the Royal Canadian Air Force Police. “The place looked stunning,” he recalls. “I decided that if I should ever go to university, it would be here.

“Had she taken me up on a foggy day in February it might have been different,” he concedes.

Doherty stuck by his decision, though he hadn’t completed high school. He started to work his way through the necessary courses and then learned that SFU would admit him as a mature student. He enrolled in 1969 and found himself in a cauldron of politics. “I was in political science, and that’s when the professors went on strike. That was all the incentive I needed to get into student politics.

“I was pretty upset with the striking, Marxist-led professors – and fought them as best I could.”

Doherty jumped into the fray, being elected, at various times, president and vice-president of the student society, and a student member of the university senate and board of governors. He also chaired various board committees including, at one time, the search for a new president.

“I learned much during that time. Mostly I learned from university president Kenneth Strand, who was without doubt a great influence on me. I am a better and smarter human being today because of that man. I learned what grace under pressure really means.”

Doherty began practising law in Vancouver in 1977, and a few years later, reconnected with a friend who was living in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. Doherty visited his friend on another beautiful June day.

“I relived that same sensation I had when I first saw SFU,” he says. “I wanted to be there. Within weeks, that was accomplished. It has been a great place to raise three children.”

Fifteen years later Doherty was ready for another change. “Fortuitously,” he recalls, “an opportunity to be appointed to the B.C. Provincial Court came along.” This May will be his 15th year as a judge. “Not bad for a guy without a high school diploma,” he quips.

“I have SFU to thank for my start,” he adds. “I can’t begin to say how good I felt the day the registrar told me I would be welcome. From that day, I felt obliged to serve the university community and apply myself to my studies.”

Ole Gjerstad (Shrum 1971)

Thirsting for adventure, Ole Gjerstad left his native Norway at 18 on a ship bound for coastal B.C. and disembarked in Kitimat, wilderness enough. He worked in remote logging camps and mines, sending home dispatches from the Canadian woods. It was a humble beginning for Gjerstad, today one of Canada’s pre-eminent independent filmmakers.

He made his way to SFU just days before the infamous occupation of the administration building. “I was not a great fan of that kind of student politics, but I stayed around, and later became head of the political science student union,” he recalls.

Politics aside, Gjerstad’s goal was to finish his degree as quickly as possible. “I worked hard, pushing myself to graduate as soon as I could,” he recalls. “University was so intense, so formative. It felt much longer than two years then, especially because it had such a profound impact on my life.”

Gjerstad didn’t stick around. He left before convocation and headed for Uppsala University in Sweden to begin graduate school. “A friend sent me a clipping from the Vancouver Province saying that I had won the Shrum gold medal. I used the $500 cheque to buy a used blue Volkswagen van – a big deal in those days.”

He eventually returned to SFU to teach and finish his PhD in anthropology. “But by that point,” he recalls, “it became clear to me that I didn’t want to be an anthropologist. I wanted to be a journalist.”

Gjerstad went on to do freelance work in Africa, much of it related to the anti-apartheid movement after the independence of Mozambique, where he and his family lived for five years. That led to stints as a producer for CBC radio and TV, as well as Vision TV, where he continued his work establishing television and radio stations in Africa as well as his new-found interest, the Canadian Arctic. His northern films include A Bridge to Mars about Canadian scientists, including SFU’s Stephen Braham, practising in the high Arctic for a human mission to Mars. The film was nominated for the 2002 Jules Verne Award.

Gjerstad has made more than 50 documentaries and his work has won Gemini, Hot Docs, GoldenSheaf, and UNESCO awards, among others. He is currently researching a film about the controversy over the destruction of dogs in an Arctic community in the 1940s.

Carlene Van Tongeren (Shrum 2003)

Former track star Carlene Van Tongeren calls the home she shares with husband Chad “the apartment of academia.” Stacks of medical and psychology textbooks compete for space with the furniture in their False Creek suite.

It’s a necessary arrangement for the studious couple, with Carlene (Shrum 2003), working toward her master’s degree in counselling psychology at UBC and Chad, who also graduated from SFU, getting through medical school.

Van Tongeren is a former captain of SFU’s track and field team, and a recipient of the prestigious U.S.- based National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes (NAIA) Doer award for athletic and academic achievement. She met Chad, a Clan team member, on the track, and they became known, endearingly, as SFU’s fastest couple. “I poured my heart into running at high school and at university, but it became time for other things in life,” says Van Tongeren.

The inseparable duo hope to do volunteer work, possibly overseas, or closer to home in the Downtown Eastside, putting their complementary skills to use in a meaningful way before settling into jobs.

“We’re both people who are always looking for a challenge,” says Van Tongeren, “and we’re definitely mobile and independent types. It’s helpful that we’re both doing what we feel called to do.”

Van Tongeren says the Shrum medal has given weight to the decisions she has made about where she is heading in life. “When you are given an opportunity you also inherit the responsibility to do something positive with it in return. I want to use that privilege to benefit others and create a more positive world.”

Joel Bakan (GG gold 1981) and Marlee Kline (Shrum 1982)

Joel Bakan’s high school record gave no sign that he would one day rise to the top at university, come to know the formal hallways of Oxford and Harvard, or that he would eventually conceive and write an international bestseller.

High school was boring for Bakan, who found an outlet in music and playing in rock bands. But in his senior year he met Marlee Kline, a year behind him, whose “perfect student” persona helped to kick start his dormant intellectual side. “We were always together after that,” recalls Bakan, who began blazing a trail that saw both of them attend a string of high-ranked universities, culminating with successful careers as law professors.

Barely able to squeak in academically, Bakan began at SFU, followed a year later by Kline. Both went on to earn top honours at SFU.

“SFU seemed more open, and certainly less daunting, to someone like me who was not academically strong,” Bakan recalls. “It turned out to be much better than I expected. There was a real spirit to this place. There was a sense of the importance of ideas, that what you thought mattered. I thrived.

“I got straight As. Most importantly, I was somebody who could think and write and articulate ideas, all of which were recognized and rewarded at SFU. My time there was life changing. I went on to be a Rhodes scholar.”

Bakan earned law degrees at Oxford, Dalhousie, and Harvard universities. He also served as a law clerk to the then Chief Justice of Canada, Brian Dickson.

Kline also made her way to Oxford, Dalhousie, then to Northeastern in Boston, and Osgoode Hall at York. Along the way, the two were married. In 1987 Kline accepted a position at UBC. Bakan also joined the law faculty and has been there ever since.

Bakan’s work examines the social, economic, and political dimensions of law. In his second book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, Bakan wanted to get out to a broader audience. And he did. A chance meeting with renowned filmmaker Mark Ackbar led to collaboration in the film, The Corporation.

The book has been translated into more than 20 languages and the film became the most financially and critically successful documentary made in Canada.

Since then, Bakan has been adjusting to a new life. In 2001, Kline passed away after a battle with cancer. They had been together 25 years. Bakan describes their life together, which included having a son, Myim, in 1996, as “a beautiful thing.”

In 2004, he married Canadian actress and songwriter Rebecca Jenkins. Having kept a hand in music over the years – playing with such West Coast bands as The Fray – he takes pleasure in playing on a song track called Something’s Coming, written by Jenkins for the film, Wilby Wonderful, which she starred in recently with Paul Gross and Sandra Oh.

Jonathan Wender (GG gold 2004)

There’s not much about police work for an officer to wax poetic. But social philosopher and Washington police veteran Jonathan Wender thinks there is more to policing than meets the eye. That led to his PhD

thesis, Policing as Poetry, an analysis of the everyday encounters between police and citizens.

“By policing as poetry I’m not referring to a literary form that’s written or recited, but to the poetry that results when people, simply by being present, create meaning,” says Wender, who spent 15 years working as a beat patrol and gang officer for a small, working-class community near Seattle. It was there he became fascinated with the everyday stories of life. His focus on the philosophical side of patrol work led him to argue that effective policing depends on looking beyond bureaucratic duties, to providing holistic attention to human dignity and suffering.

Insights gained from years on the streets have led to many accolades. Distinguished U.S. criminologist Richard Quinney, his external examiner, described Wender’s work as “monumental,” noting that “to see police officers as bearing witness to some of life’s transformative moments, as well as the everyday woes and plights, is to give transcendent meaning to police work.”

SFU criminology professor Neil Boyd says Wender showed “profound insight into the theoretical meaning and social relevance of his work.”

Wender puts it more simply: “I’ve always been fascinated by the sublimity of the ordinary, and the intrinsic richness of everyday life. That’s the interpretive lens I bring with me when I’m on the street.”

Since earning his doctorate, Wender has continued to teach criminology and humanities courses at SFU, making frequent trips across the border. He also serves on the faculty of Humanities 101, a free university certificate program for Vancouver’s inner-city residents, and he has begun two book manuscripts.