UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 11 | Nov.
John Hepburn charts a new course for the faculty
By Michelle Cook
John Hepburn is an internationally recognized powerhouse
in the fields of laser chemistry and laser spectroscopy research
who studied under Nobel prize-winning chemist John Polanyi
at the University of Toronto. He’s also a 48-year-old
father of three who commutes to campus daily by bike.
Now, almost three years after arriving at UBC from the University
of Waterloo to head up the Chemistry department, Hepburn has
taken the reins as dean of the Faculty of Science.
UBC Reports sat down with Hepburn shortly after he accepted
When did you decide to become a scientist?
I’ve always been interested in science. When I was
quite young, my dad came back from a business trip with a
glossy book on dinosaurs. It was something like Walter Cronkite
Talks About Dinosaurs and it came with a little plastic 45-rpm
record narrated by Cronkite and I just loved that. From that
day on, I was going to be a paleontologist, which is not so
unusual for a seven-year-old boy, but I kind of stuck with
Throughout high school, I had the good luck to have good
and enthusiastic science teachers much more often than disinterested
ones. As a result, I hadn’t decided what kind of scientist
I wanted to be other than I wanted to be one. Then I got a
scholarship [from the University of Waterloo] to study chemistry
so, in Grade 13, I said, “Well, I’m going to be
As the new Dean of Science, you’re following
in the footsteps of Maria Klawe, a dynamic force who championed
women in science and spearheaded innovative science programs
at UBC. What are your top priorities for the faculty?
What I want to tackle is raising both the profile and substance
of the research effort at UBC. I think that Maria did a tremendous
job of invigorating the science faculty as a whole. I see
where we could now have really explosive growth is in the
research effort and that’s very challenging because
that’s a much more expensive enterprise.
In terms of improving the research efforts here, I view
as a top priority forging a stronger partnership with the
provincial government, which up to now has been a bit on the
sidelines with research. They tend to put money into research
through things like the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund but
they don’t really involve themselves in the research
enterprises at universities — not in the basic sciences —
and that’s something I’d like to change.
How could the B.C. government be more involved in
The example would be in comparison to other provincial governments.
In Ontario, the equivalent of the B.C. Knowledge Development
Fund is the Ontario Innovation Trust, a stand-alone fund that
only exists to match CFI [Canada Foundation for Innovation]
grants. And that’s an automatic thing; you don’t
even have to apply. You just forward your CFI application
to them. In B.C., you have to write a separate application
that’s time consuming and, in the end, they match the
CFI grant anyway.
Ontario has the Research and Development Challenge Fund
[a fund that supports non-CFI supported research projects].
Ontario has always had a system of graduate scholarships.
Ontario has provincial Centres of Excellence that existed
before the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence. The
Quebec government has an independent funding agency for scientific
research in universities that is, in some ways, superior to
Ontario, and Alberta has a very strong history of funding
university and medical research.
So in order to compete with institutions in those
provinces and ensure we’re also attracting the best
and the brightest we need similar funding?
There are people at the University of Toronto who I would
love to attract to UBC. . . but you’d have to convince
them not only to give up the infrastructure that’s available
there, but to give up literally hundreds of thousands of dollars
per year of Ontario government funding for their research
programs. This is not an exaggeration.
Researchers at UBC can get money through the federal Centres
for Excellence, but there are no provincial Centres of Excellence
and there’s no Research and Development Challenge Fund,
no [provincial] graduate student scholarships. When you look
at the level of support available to someone at the University
of Toronto, you can’t duplicate that level of support
here, so there’s no point in offering them a job.
Will you be spending a lot of time in Victoria?
I’ll spend as much time in Victoria as I have to, if
necessary. I don’t get the impression that the provincial
government hates us. I think they see the value of universities
but they still haven’t worked out the details of what
it is to “like” universities. It would be good
to convince the province to go that next step.
You’ve been appointed for a six-year term.
What’s your vision for the faculty by the end of your
I think that being successful would be not bothering to compare
ourselves with the University of Toronto but comparing ourselves
— without having people smirk at us — with major American
universities. Why can’t we be compared with the University
of Washington? Right now we wouldn’t do that because
the University of Washington is a monster research enterprise.
I don’t see any reason why we can’t be a monster
research enterprise. It’s going to be a little difficult
to become a Caltech or a Harvard because we don’t have
the multibillion dollar endowments but I don’t see any
reason why we can’t aspire to be as good as any of the
big state universities in the U.S.
It’s an admitted sign of inferiority when you constantly
worry about how you’re doing compared to University
of Toronto because they don’t lose any sleep about what
UBC is doing. If, at the end of six years, I can be in a position
of not really caring what the University of Toronto does,
except if it’s academically interesting to me, then
that would be successful.
What are your academic plans for the faculty?
I’d like to expand the size of the graduate program
in science. We get very good students now, but I’d like
to get more of the good ones and larger numbers. The mark
of success would be if a Canadian graduate student would agonize
over the choice of going to the University of California,
Berkeley or UBC. They would weigh the pros and cons, and it
would involve a head-on comparison of what kind of research
they would get done at the two universities. I’d like
to have UBC win a large fraction of those comparisons.
What about undergraduates?
We already get extremely high quality students but I don’t
think we give them a great undergraduate experience because
the labs are in terrible condition. They’ve been under-funded
for so long that people have forgotten what properly funded
Right now, it’s clear that the honours bachelors degree
– the top quality undergraduate degree — is considered by
some to be a booby prize compared to getting into medicine.
I’d like students to enter first-year science with the
idea that they’d be equally happy getting into medical
school or getting an honours bachelors degree. Science is
a key discipline and if our society is going to move forward
we need to have excellent students interested in studying
science for itself. That’s what they should take away
from UBC Science; that it was a wonderful experience.
What role does a UBC-industry partnership play in
your vision for the Faculty of Science?
It plays a very strong role. We want to have high-level technical
jobs available for our graduates. Beyond that there’s
a natural tie because the driving force — particularly in
the high-tech industry — is research. If B.C. is going to
move forward as a modern economy, we need more high-tech industry
and historically, everywhere else in the world where high-tech
industry has prospered, there’s a university which produces
a skilled labour force and also produces ideas. Small companies
can’t do all their own research and large companies,
even if they can do their own research, need a constant supply
of fresh ideas.
If those in industry say, as they recently did with the
[B.C. government’s] “Doubling the Opportunity”
initiative, that they’re going to die unless something
is done to help UBC prosper, you’ve got two groups —
the university and industry — telling the government they’ve
got to give us more money and support. That’s critical.