Editor's notebook

Editor's notebook McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2001 > Spring 2001 > Editor's notebook

I remember as a young child being puzzled by many things about adults. For instance, whenever they got together, they sat down -- sometimes for hours. And I knew that they were blessed in two important ways: they didn't have to eat all their vegetables and they got to pick their own bedtime.

Nowadays I'm eating vegetables I hadn't heard of five years ago. I still hate to go to bed and I am back to being very impressed by my elders. But now it's for reasons that have to do with my own maturity. I see the courage required to face hardships of illness, the loss of friends, of lifelong partners and of that once-envied independence. As Bette Davis said, "Old age isn't for sissies." I'm learning to recognize and appreciate small acts of heroism and grace under pressure.

The news lately has been full of stories of those at a dangerous age -- adolescence -- where pressure isn't yet balanced by grace or a firm enough sense of identity to be resisted. Two more schools have had picked-on students strike back with gunfire. In Vermont, a quiet town was rocked by the discovery that two teenage residents probably killed a pair of Dartmouth professors.

There are others behaving badly, of course. Incidents of road and air rage are becoming commonplace. Parents are threatening the lives of referees at their children's hockey games. Sports heroes, pop stars -- even presidents -- are getting away with acts that not so long ago would have been career-enders. A sports announcer wryly commented on the New York Yankees' preparations for spring training last year by saying, "Those team members not currently under indictment are heading for Florida."

University campuses are not immune. Earlier this month in Edmonton, a former student with a grievance -- and a high-powered weapon -- was arrested at the University of Alberta, fortunately before he had carried out any plans for revenge.

But universities are also great places to work because they are full of heroes. Not the $8-million-a-year-with-attitude kind, but the quiet, work-for-a-better-world variety. The things people do here at McGill have the potential to affect the lives of people around the world.

For example, Professor Alan Watson of Macdonald Campus has discovered a naturally occurring pathogen which can help eliminate the noxious weed striga. Nations in western Africa are plagued by striga, which chokes desperately needed food crops. Watson wants to make the expertise available at no cost to those countries that need it. Dr. Samuel David of the McGill University Health Centre is lead investigator on a team of researchers who have had success with a new type of treatment for spinal cord injuries. They produced a vaccine to block molecules that inhibit nerve regeneration following damage to the spinal cord. Their results, which stimulated regrowth of nerve fibres in animals greater than any previously reported, also have implications for diseases like multiple sclerosis. School of Architecture professor Avi Friedman, MArch'83, has been a pioneer in the design of affordable, adaptable homes. More than 10,000 Canadians have bought his "Grow Home," and versions of it have been exported to other countries. He has received the World Habitat Award and a Manning Award of Distinction. The trendy design magazine Wallpaper recently included him in a list of "Ten Who Will Change the Way We Live."

If selling babies on the Internet and sports thuggery get more media attention than our doctors, educators and scientists, the government nonetheless seems to have heard the cry to increase the country's research funding. A new federal initiative, the Canada Research Chairs program, will allow universities to attract and retain top-notch academics. McGill, eligible for 162 CRC positions (based on the amounts each institution receives in research grants from agencies like the Medical Research Council), will use the money only for recruiting new faculty.

The University has, however, established a matching plan to recognize the high-quality academics already on staff. Tenured faculty are eligible to be appointed James McGill Professors, while assistant professors may be named William Dawson Scholars. Nominations will be made by the deans of the faculties and those honoured will receive extra research funding and a salary boost. Vice-Principal Academic Luc Vinet calls McGill's initiative "a very ambitious and exciting plan."

And it's good news for all of us, the kind of thing we need to hear instead of the latest celebrity-centred fiasco. To reverse the descriptions often applied to less worthy endeavours, at universities like McGill, it is rocket science, it is brain surgery and we are curing cancer.

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