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Rolf Mathewes

BSc. SFU 1969, Biological Sciences

Ph.D. UBC 1973 Botany

Professor, Paleoecology & Palynology, Biological Sciences, SFU



My SFU story has been running a long time, beginning when I registered in the first semester in fall 1965 as a charter student, graduating in 1969 with a BSc in Biological Sciences.  From SFU I went to do a PhD in Botany at UBC, and then a postdoctoral year in 1974 in Cambridge, UK, which my wife Donna and I enjoyed very much (no kids yet). My interests had shifted from zoology to botany and then to paleoecology and environmental history.  After returning to Canada, I spent most of a year as an environmental consultant in Vancouver, working in the Yukon as well as BC. The SFU connection resumed in 1975 when I became a faculty member, back home in Biological Sciences, and continues to this day. The first years were interesting but stressful, since I was hired as part of an experimental degree completion program in Kelowna where I taught a range of 3rd and 4th year courses early in the week, and drove back home on the old Hope Princeton Highway to family and lab for 3 days before driving to Kelowna again.  Ultimately the experiment ended and I became a regular faculty member.  After getting tenure I was promoted to Associate Professor and become an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation research fellow in 1982. I took my first study leave researching forest disturbances in the Black Forest of Germany.   A great international experience, and I returned to Germany again as a fellow in 1992 and 2014. I received an SFU Excellence in Teaching award and promotion to full professor in 1987 and, I became Associate Chair of Biology (1992-95) and then Associate Dean of Science for 11 years beginning in 2000.  I now enjoy being a regular faculty member again, but at 68 years I should probably start thinking about retirement.  Receiving an SFU Outstanding Alumni Award in 2011 for Academic Achievement was a big thrill and an honour for me.  Thank you SFU.


Why did you choose to go to SFU?

I was uncertain about whether to go to college, UBC, or SFU, and in retrospect, it was just curiosity about what a brand new institution might be like.  I visited the SFU construction site and decided learning on the top of a mountain would be a cool thing!

Where did you spend the most amount of time on campus?

The early years of SFU were very active in many ways, and besides my science labs and lectures, and listening to lunchtime political speeches in what is now Freedom Square, I used the gym and pool quite a lot.  I played on the first varsity soccer team in 1966 and spent more time kicking a ball around than I should have.  To bring up my grades I “retired” from formal soccer the next year, and a smiling coach Buchanan once mentioned that  “I should not give up my day job”; I was not going to be a Whitecaps prospect.

What is your favourite memory from your time at SFU?

My favorite undergraduate memory is my final two semesters before graduating, when I took my favourite courses, conducted my first original research project using fossils, and participated in Dr. Brooke’s 5-day field trip in plant ecology.  After an average academic start, my grade point average jumped up appreciably and qualified me for graduate school, which might have been difficult without that final year.

Who was your favourite SFU professor and why?

Without question, my favourite professor was Robert C. (Bob) Brooke although others like Richard Sadleir are also memorable.  A quiet and unassuming personality, Bob was my undergraduate mentor and advisor.  I learned a lot working in his lab and in the field as a research assistant. His courses in introductory ecology and plant ecology, and supervision of my undergraduate research project played an important role in my change of direction from zoology to botany and paleoecology. Bob passed away last year, but I currently occupy his old office, which keeps his memory and influence alive to this day.

How has your SFU degree impacted your career?

My SFU Bachelor of Science degree in 1969 was of course an important step to being accepted at UBC, where I finished my doctoral degree in 1973.

What is your favourite SFU snow story?

My favourite snow story  (if there is such a thing) is linked to my work as a research assistant for Dr. Sadleir, who was studying the winter survival of deer mice on Burnaby Mountain.  The late 1960’s had some severe winters, and I was hired to hike through the snowdrifts to monitor a sequence of “catch-and–release” traps, monitoring and weighing the population of live tagged mice daily.  One day it had snowed heavily, and when I picked up a trap from a hollow log it was unusually heavy.  When I opened it a weasel rather than a mouse jumped out at me, I was startled, stumbled forward, tripped over a root and did a face plant in the deep powder.  Actually, not my favourite story now that I think about it!

If you could give advice to students today, what would you tell them?

Based on my undergraduate experiences long ago, I would still advise students to make sure they gain experiences outside their formal studies.  Seek out a faculty member in your area of interest, and get experience as a research assistant, even as a volunteer.  Take advantage of exchange programs if they appear.  Join a Co-op program in your department to get exposure to potential future employers and what they do.  Sometimes these experiences will tell you either what you like, and just as important, what you don’t like. Outside experiences are valuable.

What is the one thing about SFU that must not change?

SFU must not change the long held focus on providing students with experiences outside the classroom.  As a biologist who has both taken and taught courses that include long field trips or field station visits, and fostered exchange programs with other institutions, I think these experiences are key to developing well-rounded graduates.