David Lee wins 2022 SFU Staff Achievement award for numerous contributions to the Department of Physics

April 27, 2023

SFU Physics laboratory technician David Lee is rarely the centre of attention but his many contributions to the Trottier Observatory, teaching and learning, outreach and fostering a positive work environment have had an outsized impact on his department and gained him a 2022 SFU Staff Achievement Award for work performance.

For much of his time at SFU David has been responsible for supporting senior physics labs, a role he took on because he’d enjoyed being a TA in grad school. “The interaction with students was always great,” he says. By their third year, most students are taking these classes out of interest or because they want to go to grad school, and that makes for a great classroom environment. “You can see the inspiring new minds and what’s coming.”

David sees the role of technical staff as going well beyond ensuring that supplies and experiments are prepped for lessons. The conversations technicians have with students can complement professors’ theoretical knowledge with the practical skills that students will use in their careers. “They must learn the instrumentation and how real-world equipment works. We have the ability to extend their education beyond what people think education is,” he says.

David’s support for these classes has been invaluable, and has required him to keep up to date with several different fields of physics, working with lasers, electronics, x-ray diffraction, machine tools, computer networks and software, as well as culturing biological materials. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he helped instructors redesign classroom experiments meant for groups to ensure that classes could still run with physical distancing.

An amateur astronomer, David became involved with planning discussions for the Trottier Observatory more than a decade before construction crews broke ground. He was instrumental in setting up all its equipment, and continues to provide support for classes and research there, sometimes well outside of office hours.

Now that the Observatory is approaching ten years old, he’s working to retrofit its equipment to keep it current. “Everything is being upgraded constantly,” he says. In his time at the Observatory, he has initiated multiple projects to improve the smooth functioning of the facility, including installing a telescope shroud to mitigate light pollution on campus and finding solutions to prevent moisture damage to sensitive instruments.

“Occasionally sometimes in the summer, the school groups, the summer camp groups, if they just happen to be here, I will gladly offer an impromptu tour and they always appreciate seeing inside,” he says.

David often volunteers to help with events, and his contributions have made them memorable for both his colleagues and the public. Over the years he has designed and built multiple experiments and props for public events such as Science Rendezvous and Science Spooktacular. He helps out because he loves to see kids smile.

A select few in the Physics department are lucky recipients of David's hand-made commemorative trophies and plaques, and when FoodSafe and Serving it Right became requirements for running events at SFU, he became certified so he could continue to be the chief grill master, pancake flipper and bartender at Physics social events.

David first came to SFU as a student in 1997, and while he has worked and studied elsewhere, the culture of SFU drew him back to SFU Physics. “SFU’s been good,” he says. “Physics still carries that original radical university feeling. The Physics department is very relaxed, helpful, supportive, and very supportive of outside endeavours.”

For over 14 years he’s volunteered for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation of Canada (BC chapter), where he helps with logistics at their events, garnering him the JDRF National Volunteer of the Year award in 2019.  Additionally, he’s nearing the end of his term as the president of Handball Canada, after 15 years of involvement with the organization, and is completely retiring from the sport after 35 years. Lately he’s been into Old Boys rugby, training and competing with the Twilighter Rugby Club at Burnaby Lake.

After 14 years of support for teaching and learning he has recently transitioned into a new role supporting faculty research, and he’s looking forward to having more opportunities to use his creative and intuitive side. “We are blessed with some very good experimental physicists,” he says.

On his award he says: “I never like to be centre stage. Everyone else is valuable. But I do appreciate the recognition. It’s hard to put to words.”