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Denis Thérien named new VP Research

Denis Thérien named new VP Research and International Relations - article by Patrick McDonagh, McGill Reporter Nov. 10, 2005

McGill has been riding a wave of positive research publicity over the past few weeks, being ranked among the world's top 25 universities by the Times Higher Education Supplement, and identified as Canada's top research university in the Medical/Doctoral category by Research Infosource Inc. The responsibility for ensuring the university maintains its lofty position nationally, and builds on its international status, will soon rest on the shoulders of Denis Thérien, former director of the School of Computer Science, who on October 31 was named McGill's new vice-principal, research and international relations. His mandate involves supporting McGill's research activities, helping guide the research agenda, and facilitating the transfer of McGill-developed knowledge and technologies to the commercial market. He assumes the newly created position on November 15, taking over from Jacques Hurtubise, who has served as the interim vice-principal, research, since September 2004.

Bringing international relations into the research portfolio makes sense, says Thérien. "McGill is both very research-intensive and very international. The Princeton Review regularly ranks McGill as one of the top universities in North America in terms of diversity, and with good reason. The campus is international, our faculty is international, our students are international and our research is international — it's one of our greatest strengths."

And, in terms of maintaining a high research profile, the greatest challenges also come from the international scene. "The competition between universities across the world is growing fiercer," says Thérien. "There are more bright, well-educated people on the market, but there are also more schools after them. And the primary ingredient of research success is brainpower. The competition for money is very intense, but without the researchers, the money won't do anything. So our priority is to attract super brains and retain those we already have. We have to make them happy, as a happy researcher is going to stay, and this means providing good research, social and cultural environments. We're fortunate, as Montreal is a very pleasant place to live, so if McGill provides support in terms of space, funding for students, and an exciting research milieu, we have a winning combination."

The new job's responsibilities also include finding ways to build the networks and professional exchanges that are critical for growing top-level collaborations and for bringing university-developed technologies to the marketplace. For instance, the VP's office is hosting next June's Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS) conference, which will bring 5,000 researchers across disciplines to the McGill campus. As well, the university is striving to create a number of industrial research chairs, which would provide interaction between university and private-sector researchers.

Thérien comes to his new position well-prepared by eight years as director of computer science. "Because computer science is involved with many other disciplines, I have met researchers in the faculties of science, engineering, medicine, and agricultural and environmental sciences, among others. So I am very far from starting from scratch, although obviously I still have quite a bit of homework. One of my first tasks will be meeting people to learn more about what my colleagues are doing."

He also benefits from being passed a solid portfolio by the interim vice-principal research, Jacques Hurtubise. "In the past year we've been gearing McGill up for the modern research environment, as we were a bit behind on some structures," explains Hurtubise. "For example, in dealing with the Canadian Foundation for Innovation applications, we were like talented amateurs. Now we've tightened up the process to make sure our proposals go in with the necessary level of polish and preparation."

According to Hurtubise, planning issues will form an important part of the new job. "For instance, how will the Macdonald Campus evolve over the next twenty years? Research at McGill is an exciting new landscape." And the terrain, he notes, is continually renewing, with 100 new faculty members this year and another four to five hundred in the coming five to ten years, who will need support getting their careers underway. "The traditional approach has been the archetypal swimming lesson - just throw them in and say 'Go for it,' without giving much instruction," he says. "But with today's more complicated environment, we have to provide the proper help, which can vary from getting a new building to simply ensuring that processes are well-run and fair." Hurtubise will be returning to his own research in the department of mathematics and statistics, where he is a global leader in the topology of moduli spaces. "I'm looking forward to getting back to something I really love, and will be taking some time to touch the eternal again," he says.

Like Hurtubise, Thérien brings with him a background in mathematics, specifically in the algebraic theory of automata, which he describes as a "very mathematically oriented branch of theoretical computer science. Basically I apply mathematics to problems that arise in a computation environment, which I find demanding and aesthetically beautiful. If you are a mathematician, it's a thrill to look at these computational questions."

If Thérien's background in computer science has helped him meet many McGill researchers already, the fact that he is a proficient juggler should also prove useful. "For years it was almost a requirement that my graduate students would learn to juggle," he says. "Every summer day we would sit on front field, juggle balls and work." Mathematics and juggling, he notes, are "not totally unrelated." Certainly, for the range of activities demanded of his new job, a little juggling skill could be helpful.

The new VP also brings a certain Quebec pop culture cachet. In 1967, Therien, a 12-year-old with a precocious knowledge of all things related to Les Aventures de Tintin et Milou, the Belgian comic strip, enjoyed a three-week run on a Tintin-related segment of the tremendously popular Société Radio-Canada (SRC) quiz show "Tous pour un." The episodes were a success of cult-like proportions, and when the SRC celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2002 by reprising its greatest hits, it included the young Thérien on "Tous pour un." "I watched with my three sons. It was very funny and at the same time… it hit me that this had been a special thing that I had been part of. Even 38 years later, not one month goes by without someone stopping me on the street and saying 'Aren't you the little guy from the TV in 1967?'"

The character Tintin is curious, inventive, resourceful and playful - which are also, perhaps not coincidentally, the characteristics of many a good researcher. "In the School of Computer Science, we were able to attract many fantastic researchers over the last ten years, and keep those we already had - even though our competitors could offer more money. But people came and stayed because the work was intellectually satisfying and the environment was fun," says Thérien. "I'm hoping to bring the same spirit to my new job."