Meet Mohamad Rezaei and Laila Abelseth, Faculty of Applied Sciences
This is a story in our People of SFU series, where we’re celebrating SFU’s unsung heroes—those who go above and beyond the call of duty to create community, advance SFU’s mission and make the university a great place to work and learn. You can read more stories here.
When in-person activities became restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching and research operations were significantly impacted in SFU’s Faculty of Applied Sciences (FAS), which heavily relies on hands-on training and experimentation. Working remotely could only be a short-term solution, requiring FAS to prepare to resume on-campus activities sooner than most units across the university.
“In the applied sciences field, most research must be conducted and completed in a lab, and this lab component is invaluable to the students’ education,” says Mohamad Rezaei, the director of technology and facilities in FAS.
“Particularly, it’s been a challenge for graduate students who need to perform experiments, generate data and publish so that they can finish their degrees on time.”
At the time, Rezaei was part of a team of lab engineers helping to maintain the teaching and research labs in FAS. When FAS needed to quickly implement safety plans and processes to allow essential operations to continue during the pandemic, Rezaei was a natural fit to lead these initiatives.
Equipped with experience in lab safety from the mining industry, 4D LABS and FAS, he was also working on his MBA from the Beedie School of Business, which he completed this past June. Rezaei has always made safety a top priority, a lesson he learned early in his academic and industry careers while working with various tools and equipment.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Rezaei worked closely with the FAS leadership team, including the dean, senior director, associate directors and school directors to determine how to resume critical activities in the schools of computing science, engineering science, mechatronic systems engineering and sustainable energy engineering located on the Burnaby and Surrey campuses. To ensure in-person research and training could resume in summer 2020, he collaborated with colleagues across FAS to design space-specific safety plans, procure cleaning supplies, create safety training materials, establish schedules, and communicate the new processes and updates that were changing regularly.
“Everything was unknown, and we had to stay strong, resilient, but flexible at the same time – especially when regulations change so fast,” says Rezaei.
“Immediate action has to be taken, sometimes on a daily basis and there can’t be any delays.”
To help introduce the new safety measures and monitor compliance, faculty and staff members participated in daily review of FAS spaces, addressed any health and safety question, and informed our colleagues of any new safety measures.
“We have a team of thirty compliance officers at our Surrey and Burnaby campuses go through the checklist of any approved spaces for in-person activities,” notes Laila Abelseth, who joined FAS as a safety operations officer partway through the pandemic.
“These are all volunteer faculty and staff, including the dean, from FAS who took time from their usual work to help ensure that individuals were following safety procedures and that spaces were set up properly for teaching, research and work.”
Abelseth quickly became the FAS staff who was most familiar with the latest safety guidelines from the Provincial Health Authorities and SFU, which she ensures that FAS is operating within.
“Our faculty approach to the pandemic was really an all hands-on-deck strategy, whereby direction came from our academic leadership team, who met weekly, followed by bi-weekly meetings with our quickly put together FAS COVID-19 operations team” shared Amanda Woodhall, who is the senior director of FAS.
The FAS COVID-19 operations team included members from across the faculty, including participation from the technical, facilities, safety, communications, academic affairs, finance and administration teams.
“It was definitely a collective effort by many and we leant heavily on our technical and safety experts to provide crucial guidance to our operations,” notes Woodhall
“With changes to safety guidelines, sometimes happening on a daily basis, I can understand why there could be confusion on what we can or cannot do,” says Abelseth.
“That is why it is so important for us to work closely with our colleagues across FAS to implement safety procedures and, at the same time, help answer any questions they may have.”
Rezaei was also tasked with overseeing a construction project in the Applied Science Building (ASB), which began in May 2020 with a target completion date of fall 2021. Construction posed an additional challenge of space reorganization with the limited occupancy and physical distancing in place. Computers and lab equipment had to be safely moved out of construction areas and stored securely for students, faculty and staff to remotely access from home. Rezaei’s team tirelessly communicated and collaborated with faculty members to ensure spaces and equipment were secured with the least amount of disruption.
“While we had to ensure that we carried out our on-campus activities with the health and wellbeing of our students, staff and faculty at the forefront of our approach, we still had the regular activities of our faculty moving ahead, including multiple construction and renovation projects in our facilities at SFU Burnaby and Surrey,” shares Woodhall.
The university is prepared for a significant return-to-campus activities this fall. For Rezaei, Abelseth and their colleagues, the goal is to learn from their past year of on-campus operations and refine processes to provide a smooth and welcoming experience for the FAS community.
“Every decision will continue to be made with student experience in mind and with an extra emphasis on safety,” says Rezaei.
“The pandemic shifted the way we do things, but it has also given us an opportunity to re-evaluate our safety procedures.”
Uncertainty may rise again as COVID-19 cases surge and as new variants are identified. However, the FAS team is ready to adapt to any challenges that come their way.