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Rowland Atkins

Geomorphologist, Golder Associates



I completed a BSc (Co-op) in Physical Geography (now Earth Sciences) and a Certificate in Liberal Arts, both in 1991, despite having started in Pure and Applied Mathematics in 1985.  I changed programs in my third year because I was feeling disconnected from my studies. Following advice from the career counsellors on campus I took Physical Geography 100 and Geology 120 in my third year and was hooked.  Co-op introduced me to senior researchers at the Geological Survey of Canada, who gave generously of their time in mentoring. Co-op also introduced me to the woman who would become my wife. 

I have been a practicing consultant as a Geomorphologist since 1993 after completing my MSc in coastal processes at U of T on an NSERC Scholarship.  I attained professional registration as a PGeo with APEGBC in 1996 and have worked at three different firms, the last 16 years of which have been with Golder Associates.  I was appointed an Associate of Golder in 2010 and am the lead Geomorphologist for the 8,500 person strong global company, which has afforded me opportunities to work in many countries.   The successes I have had in my career are squarely down to the engaging and supportive atmosphere of the Geography department, the encouragement I received to pursue my area of study, and those professors in other departments who mentored me.  My greatest pleasure has been giving back the mentoring I received and watching those I have mentored find their own paths and build their careers.


Why did you choose to go to SFU?

Three reasons – the SFU math department was very welcoming when I came to gather information about the campus and department while I was in my last year of high school, SFU offered me a scholarship and my brother had selected SFU for his studies the previous year.

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

After changing to Geography in my 3rd year I spent nearly all my time in and around the Classroom Complex, prior to that any available bench on the concourse of the AQ, especially in the alcoves near the Images Theatre.

What is your favourite memory from your time at SFU?

This is a hard one. There were so many great moments: being hired as a summer field assistant, working with the electron microscope, early Sunday mornings in the computer science labs, geoscience field trips in BC and Washington, going to my first Co-op job interview on the day I chose to wear a house coat to class, taking plastic pink flamingoes into a Philosophy final exam, banging pot lids in an early morning Math class, comparing Beowulf with John Carpenter’s movie “The Thing” in English, admitting I learned some battlefield history from a Tom Sharpe novel during a History tutorial.  However, my favourite memory has to be the recurrent one of driving through Greater Vancouver mired in cloud and fog in the Spring and Fall only to drive up the mountain into sunshine.  What a way to start the day.

Who was your favorite SFU professor and why?

This is also a hard one, there were so many great professors, and from so many Departments (Geography, Mathematics, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, English and History).  Of these, I would say Ted Hickin.  Ted went out of his way to encourage my interest in geoscience, introduce me to a long-standing colleague for whom I became a “shovel-carrier or bear-fodder” for my first summer stint doing fieldwork, sponsor me for NSERC Undergraduate and Graduate awards, and phone me and congratulate me on the day I registered as a PGeo. several years after I had left SFU.  The attention and interest given me by so many of my professors at SFU really set me on my future path.

How has your SFU degree impacted your career?

Without my degree, I would not have had the education to build a successful career as a Geomorphologist.  The experiences I had at SFU while taking my BSc laid the foundation for all that has followed since in my professional life.

What is your favourite SFU snow story?

The first year biology lab instructor let students stay in the lab to finish work after snows had been falling all day and classes had started being cancelled around 2 PM.  I finally left around 6PM on deserted snowy roads and headed off hill after enjoying a spot of “vigorous” snow driving in the deserted B Lot.

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

The same advice I was given while at SFU and in return gave to students of mine when I TA’d at UofT: “Find something you like, something that you are passionate about and pursue it to the ends of the Earth”. Nothing makes it easier to get up on Monday morning and go to work than a career that excites you.  I still use it to advise people who seek me out for mentoring.

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

The lecture and tutorial system should never change.  The advantages of being provided scheduled break-out sessions with lecturers and TAs provided for in-depth discussion and exploration of ideas and issues and is a model many companies use when setting up project teams.  Some of my best memories stem from tutorials.