"As scientists, we were trained to be rigorous in the details of our work, but John went a step further to stress that our results should be intuitive to understand."

Scott Yang, former PhD student

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2017 Award for Excellence in Supervision: John Bechhoefer

June 20, 2017

Dr. John Bechhoefer came to SFU as an Assistant Professor in 1991 and has been a full professor in the Department of Physics since 2000. In this time, he has become established as a world expert in feedback control, and his interdisciplinary background in biophysics has been invaluable for his graduate students.

Former PhD student Dr. Scott Yang, recalls, “Many times, I would come in the lab and find a book on my desk, sometimes bookmarked, or even opened to the beginning of a particular section.” Dr. Bechhoefer strives to establish his students as well-rounded scholars, having them attend many conferences and workshops, become involved in grant writing and peer review proceses, and participate in reading courses and seminars.

“As scientists, we were trained to be rigorous in the details of our work, but John went a step further to stress that our results should be intuitive to understand,” says Dr. Yang. “He showed me what it means to understand.”

Dr. Bechhoefer's patience in teaching his students valuable writing and presenting skills is made clear through their successes. “His student's work is well cited and recognized,” says Associate Professor and Physics Graduate Program Committee Chair, Dr. Eldon Emberly. “The theses are always well written, which can be attributed to John [spending] a lot of time with each student helping them to hone their scientific writing skills.”

Dr. Bechhoefer takes a keen interest in his students’ professional development, and has published with his students as first authors dozens of times. Just recently, one of his current students had their publication selected as Editor’s choice in Physical Review Letters. Dr. Yang’s paper in Molecular Systems Biology was rated a “Must Read” by the Faculty of 1000, and former student Dr. Suckjoon Jun, now an Assistant Professor at the University of California San Diego, was selected as one of SFU’s top 50 alumni for the 50th anniversary celebration. 

Technical skills aside, Dr. Bechhoefer still says his main goal is to “instill a passion for doing science, for pursuing ideas, for debating theories, for evaluating results with rigour, for finding fun in the pursuit.” He goes on to say, “it is sometimes those aspects of science that are hard to quantify that end up being the most important.”

Those he has supervised speak of his abundant patience, encouragement, and the above-and-beyond support that he provides when times get tough. Dr. Bechhoefer is receiving the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision because his students have consistently emerged to be critical, well-rounded and successful scientists.