Q&A with Dugan O’Neil, SFU’s new vice-president, research and international
By Justin Wong
After a robust search process and community consultation, the Board of Governors has approved the appointment of professor Dugan O’Neil as Simon Fraser University’s vice-president, research and international (VPRI). This month, O’Neil begins his new role.
The VPRI is a full-time leadership role with overall responsibility for academic leadership in—and administration of—research and other scholarly activities at SFU. It is also responsible for developing and supporting SFU’s international engagement strategies and activities related to research.
Since his appointment as the VPRI pro tem last year, O’Neil has facilitated research excellence by leading strategic research initiatives and collaborated with SFU faculty members and students to ensure they have the support and resources required to conduct cutting-edge research in all its forms. He took over this role from Joy Johnson as she became SFU’s 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 SFU’s Big Data Initiative and oversaw the Core Facilities Program model roll-out at SFU. Additionally, as a joint initiative with SFU’s Vice-President, Academic and Provost, he established the Distinguished SFU Professors program, recognizing research faculty members of distinction who have achieved exceptional performance and accomplishments relative to their rank and years of service.
SFU News met with O’Neil to discuss his SFU journey as he begins his role as the university’s VPRI.
What attracted you to the role of vice-president, research and international?
I am interested in research from all fields, even those in which I have little direct experience or expertise. As AVPR, I 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 was fortunate 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. As VPRI, I will collaborate with many people I have 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 SFU’s Containment Level 3 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. SFU’s 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. That lab is now operational as a university core facility, with Ralph Pantophlet serving as Scientific Director.
As we emerge from the pandemic, the university has an important role to play in the rebuilding of our economy and our society. In light of climate change, building a more sustainable society is more urgent than ever. SFU researchers are poised to provide technologies, evidence and policy advice in support of building a more sustainable society. At the same time, the last year has exposed weaknesses in our social structures. It has become clear to all of us that in times of crisis, the effects of that crisis fall more harshly on some members of our community than others. We have many scholars focused on these kinds of concerns and can bring a lot of expertise to the discussion of how to do better.
What will you take from your predecessor to carry forward in your new role?
I have learned a lot from watching and working with 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 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 ARC 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.
Another example is on our Surrey campus, where we have agreed to host a new provincial Quantum Algorithms Institute. Construction is now underway on the collaboration space for the 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 British Columbia to build on a regional strength, with our university playing a leading role.
There are so many examples like this in which the country—and the world—will be looking to SFU for leadership as we move forward.
Global sustainability is top of mind for many in the SFU community. What role do you see for SFU in advancing sustainability?
This year, in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, SFU ranked top 10 for three key UN Sustainable Development Goals, including fifth in Peace, Justice And Strong Institutions (SDG 16); sixth in Sustainable Cities And Communities (SDG 11); and seventh in Climate Action (SDG 13). This reflects a deep grass roots commitment to sustainability in our research, our academic programs and our operations.
The university has a number of innovative initiatives that have helped with our success in supporting sustainable research. This is represented within priority research challenge number one of the Strategic Research Plan: addressing environmental concerns and creating a sustainable future. In the coming year, we will be rolling out a number of initiatives in support of sustainability research and international engagement at SFU. Stay tuned!