After over 50 years at SFU Chemistry Paul Saunders is still having fun

August 10, 2023

Laboratory technician Paul Saunders began his career at SFU on December 4, 1972. Despite a long commute from his home in Ladner, he travels to Burnaby Campus four days a week to prep lessons and experiments for classes in the SFU Department of Chemistry. Why? Because it’s fun. 

Saunders is responsible for maintaining lab equipment, ensuring a safe working environment, assisting faculty with experiments and ordering supplies. His colleagues describe him as a person who consistently goes above and beyond to help faculty with research and teaching, and they praise his technical expertise and ability to repair and maintain a wide variety of equipment, including things that are older and difficult to service.

“Most of my work is just for teaching,” he says. “In some ways it may be repetitive but it’s changing all the time. The equipment changes, the chemicals change and the kinds of experiments people are doing changes. Just about every semester there’s a new twist you need to get ready for, so it keeps it interesting.”

Saunders has always been fascinated by chemistry. A self-professed “nerd,” he subscribed to Scientific American and joined his high school science club. The club was supervised by a chemistry teacher and was his first exposure to the kind of work that he would later do at SFU. “My career here started when I was in high school,” he says, “like running what they call an ion exchange column. We were doing that in high school in grade 10, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Saunders studied biochemistry at UBC before heading off to work contracts in Ottawa and Northern BC, doing drafting and seismic assessment for road design and the Peace River Dam. “Working out in the bush with one other guy for months on end is not a lot of fun,” he concludes. “Chemistry has more going on.”

Starting at SFU was a steep learning curve. “The first day wasn’t great,” he recalls. Classes had ended for the year, campus was nearly empty, and he had to figure out his job from a manual. But he persevered and became a valued member of the team.

SFU Chemistry department staff at the opening of the South Sciences Building in 1993. Paul Saunders top right.

The 80’s were another challenging time at SFU. During a round of budget cuts Saunders was laid off along with many other science technicians. “Chemistry had a big meeting in the DAC,” he recalls. “The whole department was there and they all rallied behind me to keep my job. It was really quite the thing.” Thanks to a colleague’s retirement, and another colleague’s departure, the department was able to offer him a new job in organic and inorganic chemistry, where he has been ever since.

In his time at SFU Saunders has seen the university change profoundly. The chemistry department has quadrupled in size and there has been constant construction as campus has expanded. The South Sciences Building, where he works today, used to be bush where deer were often seen, and he remembers jogging around University Drive when it was still a dirt road in the forest.  

The culture of SFU has also shifted toward increasing professionalization and regulation of work and safety standards. Saunders played a lead role in establishing the Central University Health & Safety Committee (CUHSC), contributing decades of service advising on safety concerns that affect the university as a whole. He was also an advocate for improving working conditions on campus and served as a union executive.

Saunders’ many years of service, dedication to teaching excellence, and work improving safety on campus has earned him a 2022 SFU Lifetime Achievement Award, but it’s the camaraderie of the chemistry department that keeps him coming to work each day. “I enjoy being around the people,” he says. “I’ve made lots of good friends here, and I have a couple papers out with my name on. That was a plus.”

“In the years I’ve been here there has been a good atmosphere. We play soccer and do lots of activities outside of doing chemistry. It’s a fun place to work.”