Faculty and Staff

Q&A with Dugan O’Neil, SFU’s new vice-president, research and International pro tem

July 15, 2020
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By Justin Wong

This month, Dugan O’Neil begins his new role as SFU’s vice-president, research and international pro tem. He takes over this role from Joy Johnson as she becomes SFU’s next president and vice-chancellor.

O’Neil has served as associate vice-president, research since 2017, working closely with Johnson to advance the university’s research mission. As a faculty member in the Department of Physics, he has spearheaded SFU’s advanced research computing (ARC) efforts over the past decade, including the installation of Cedar, one of Canada's most powerful academic supercomputers, on the Burnaby campus. As AVPR, he also led the Big Data Initiative and oversaw the Core Facilities Program model roll-out at SFU.  

SFU News recently sat down with O’Neil to discuss his SFU journey as he moves into his new role.

What attracted you to the role of vice-president, research and international (VPRI)?

I am interested in research from all fields, even those in which I have little direct experience or expertise. As AVPR, I have had the pleasure of learning about the scholarly work that people at SFU are doing while also trying to learn about how they work and what support they need to succeed. Whether that work is motivated by a fundamental curiosity about how the world works, or by their desire to create positive social change, the passion researchers have for their work is inspiring.

This job will have its own challenges, but I believe it will also be rewarding because I am at the stage of my career where I can help make a difference.

What makes you passionate about research?

From a very early age I have “geeked-out” over research. My own research is basic – trying to understand the fundamental building blocks of nature and the forces that govern them. It is simple in concept, but technically hard to do.

As AVPR, I have had the privilege to work with people studying far more complex systems—like studying human beings. While I am a very happy physicist, I have often thought that “if I had another life to live, I would do X.” The “X’ is always some type of research, but the field changes regularly as I meet new researchers and find out what they do. By now, I have lost count of how many lives I would need to accomplish this.

How has your dual role as an SFU physics professor and AVPR prepared you for taking on the VPRI role?

Particle physicists, like me, are collaborative problem solvers. I have spent most of my career working with other academics from more than 40 countries, striving together to solve a specific set of complex problems. To develop these solutions, we are guided by data.

As AVPR, I learned about how the faculties, departments and various administrative units function together to support the university’s mission and how people from different disciplines rely on various SFU supports to facilitate their work. In my new role, I’ll collaborate with many people I’ve known from my days as AVPR, including senior academic leaders from across the university as well as our government and industry partners.

What developments on the horizon are you most looking forward to most for SFU’s research community?

SFU is in an excellent position. We are a big research university that can make an impact in just about any field of study we choose, but are still small enough to remain nimble and to respond to opportunities as they arise.

Consider the way the SFU community has responded to COVID-19. One of my favourite examples is the certification of a level-3 biosafety lab to allow our researchers to safely study the SARS-COV-2 virus. In the middle of a pandemic, some researchers packed up their equipment and moved labs. Facilities Services performed a fast renovation that successfully passed inspections, new equipment was procured, and new operating procedures were developed for submission to a public health agency for approval.

Another example is at our Surrey campus, where we have agreed to host a new provincial Quantum Algorithms Institute. Quantum computing is still an emerging technology, with a lot of fundamental research in progress. However, this institute is also a unique partnership between industry, government and academia, exploring short-term real-world applications of that technology. This is a wonderful opportunity for SFU and BC to build on a regional strength, with SFU playing a leading role.

What will you take from your predecessor to carry forward in your new role?

I have learned a lot from watching Joy Johnson as VPRI. If I had to pick one lesson, it is how she consults with stakeholders around major decisions, without getting bogged down in endless discussion; being collegial, consultative and, at the same time, decisive.

What inspired the launch of SFU’s Core Facilities Program?

Many researchers rely on specialized facilities to do their work. They may need access to an expensive microscope, a supercomputer, or a group of specialized technical experts. It can be difficult to build the facility they need and even harder to sustain those facilities over time. Researchers tend to get funded grant-by-grant, project-by-project, rather than being funded to build something that lasts. We needed a better way to build and sustain world-class research facilities at SFU.

We have some great models pioneered at SFU, like the 4D Labs model. We now offer open facilities to the academic community and to our industry partners. We decided to generalize the model and create a program to support such facilities. I am excited about the facilities we already have and those we can now create under the program.

What should SFU researchers be excited about as we move forward?

I believe we have the opportunity to become a “go-to” partner for government agencies, companies and not-for-profits for support in addressing important social and economic challenges facing Canada. We have already seen this happen in recent years with SFU’s impact in the big data industry and the launch of the Data for Good initiative. We are building on a decade of leadership in the big data field, investing in advanced research computing to help accelerate scholarship and innovation.

Today, we host one of Canada’s most powerful supercomputers (Cedar) as well as the national headquarters for the Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute (CANSSI) at SFU’s Big Data Hub. We also feature great academic programming, including the Professional Master of Science in Computer Science. Our reputation in big data is now benefiting individual researchers in many disciplines who have tremendous expertise and seek partners with data. We have amazing researchers at SFU, and as we grow, the outside world is starting to take note.

During these unprecedented times with COVID-19, what gives you hope and inspiration?

A number of things have inspired me. This includes Dr. Bonnie Henry’s mantra that “we’re all in this together,” which I feel has also really resonated with our community and has helped unite us.

New collaborations have sprung-up between people, agencies, universities and whole systems. In some cases, in a few weeks we have made changes that would have taken years or may never have happened if not for the pandemic. Society has also been watching the scientific process in real-time. The public is being shown data visualizations in the media and is being asked to “flatten the curve.”

Researchers are asking tough questions, not just about how to flatten the curve, but about the impact of the pandemic on different societal groups, and about economic recovery. It has been a challenging time for so many of us, but I have been inspired by how we have pulled together to confront the challenge.