Dr. Mike Thewalt (centre) with current grad students Jeff Salvail (left) and Phillip Dluhy (right)


Faculty Profile: Dr. Mike Thewalt, Physics

October 08, 2013

We're delighted to profile the winners of the 2013 Dean's Awards for Excellence in Graduate Studies. Dr. Mike Thewalt received an award for Excellence in Supervision.

Dr. Mike Thewalt's students speak fondly of their years in his physics research group. Their memories of their time at SFU include lab Pac-Man tournaments, driving from Vancouver to Vegas for a physics conference, dinners at his home, and group weekend vacations on the Gulf Islands. (Dr. Alan Steele, currently Canada's Chief Metrologist, says, of that trip, "I remember being tutored in the details of deep level transient spectroscopy while walking in the woods.")

There was plenty of hard work, of course. Dr. Thewalt is known for being first into his lab in the mornings, and for being available to help out his graduate students at all times. He says, "I believe in guiding graduate students and young researchers through the first-hand experience of solving challenging problems and learning to focus on what is really important."

His current and past students describe a collegial lab where questions are encouraged, and mistakes are genuine learning opportunities that may even lead to future experiments.

His results are impressive: He's served as Vice-President and President of the Canadian Association of Physicists, and received a large number of prestigious awards, including Fellowships in the American Physical Society, the Royal Society of Canada, and the UK Institute of Physics, and a Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the  Canadian Association of Physicists.

He expects no less of his students — while working with him, his students have also served on SFU's Senate, participated in the Physics grad caucus (and at least one of them met his spouse at SFU) — and they've developed such excellent papers and achieved such excellent grades that they regularly win major academic awards. They also complete in record time: His students' average completion time is 8 terms for his master's students and 12.5 terms for his PhDs, well below the North American average.

His students have gone on to high achievements in their own careers and say that they try to live up to his example and mentorship.

Dr. Simon Watkins, one of Dr. Thewalt's first grad students, and now chair of SFU's Department of Physics, says, "I see a steady stream of gifted students going into Mike's lab as raw recruits, and coming out as seasoned, independent researchers. Now that I've been training my own students for more than 20 years, I realize just how talented Mike was as a graduate supervisor."

Dr. Sylvain Charbonneau, former Director of Applications Technologies at the National Research Council of Canada, and currently Associate Vice President Research, University of Ottawa, speaks for his fellow former students when he says, "Without hesitation, I consider Mike Thewalt to be the greatest academic influence in my entire education."

Tags: Achievements; profiles; physics, Faculty of Science

The 2014 Dean of Graduate Studies Awards for Excellence are open for nominations. Deadline for nominations is March 15 yearly.

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