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Q&A: John Hepburn, CIFAR’s new Vice-President, Research

by CIFAR May 5 / 16

In April CIFAR announced the appointment of Dr. John W. Hepburn to the position of Vice-President, Research. Dr. Hepburn joins CIFAR from the University of British Columbia, where he is Vice President Research and International, and is a Professor in the departments of Chemistry and Physics & Astronomy. News & Ideas talked to him about the role he will take on in June.

News & Ideas: Welcome to CIFAR. What made you decide to join us?

John Hepburn: First and foremost, CIFAR is about promoting the best research in frontier areas, and that’s very attractive to me. CIFAR addresses interesting issues that are relevant on a global scale and finds some of the best people to work on them.

CIFAR promotes interdisciplinary collaborations and international collaborations. All of that’s incredibly important for moving a research enterprise forward. CIFAR says “Let’s get together and discuss this really, really important issue and we’ll see what happens.”

CIFAR is also committed to making sure that the results of those deep-thinking exercises have an important impact outside of the immediate scholarly community. CIFAR is broadening its reach to have an impact on public policy or the next technology revolution, for example. In my way of thinking, research impact that is appropriate to the field of research is part of research excellence. That’s what CIFAR is working on now and I find that exciting.

N&I: You’re originally from Ontario?

JH: I’m a Hamilton boy. I grew up just outside of Hamilton, in Ancaster. Then I went to the University of Waterloo, then the University of Toronto and then UC Berkeley.

N&I: Can you just tell me a bit about your research? What are your research interests?

JH: I’ve worked in laser chemistry and atomic and molecular physics. I’m in a field between chemistry and physics, so conveniently it’s called chemical physics. I started off in chemical dynamics, studying how chemical reactions occur, and gradually shifted more and more towards atomic and molecular physics.

My current research is in something called coherent control, which is really probing detailed quantum mechanical properties of matter. But it’s always been work with lasers, and I have used a variety of different laser technologies. Most recently, the work over the last decade has all been with ultrafast lasers.

N&I: During your tenure as vice-president, research and international at UBC you’ve presided over a true transformation of research. What’s it been like?

JH: You know it’s funny. VPs research, like university presidents, always get credited with all the wonderful things that go on in the university and it’s a bit of a false credit. We play a role, but I’ve had the benefit of participating in the research enterprise at UBC at a time when things were moving forward in Canada. We were able to hire fabulous faculty members. My job was basically to support the research enterprise. I’ve done that reasonably well, but really the success at UBC is because of the fabulous researchers we’ve got.

N&I: Can you tell me about your experience in international collaborations?

JH: At UBC, both as dean but more so as vice-president research, and especially after I was given responsibility for international, I did a lot of work abroad connecting with potential partners. The most familiar one to CIFAR would be the partnership between UBC’s Quantum Matter Institute and the Max Planck Society. That was a partnership that my office and I were involved with negotiating and setting up.

International collaboration is one of the attractive features of CIFAR to me. Most of the funding for research in Canada is focused on activities in Canada. If you really want a collection of the best researchers, you have to include a large fraction of non-Canadians. It’s vital for the research enterprise. Otherwise you become very parochial. The worst thing you can do to any research field is restrict it geographically.

N&I:Which of our programs are you curious about?

JH: I guess the ones that I know the least about. With CIFAR, the social science programs are most interesting just because that’s not my research area.

Of course, I am also very interested in the Molecular Architecture of Life program because that’s more familiar to me. Quantum Materials and Quantum Information Science, they’re somewhat related to my own research interests.

The ones that I am most curious about and that are going to be hardest for me to understand are the ones farthest away from my research area. I’m looking forward to learning about all 14 of the programs.

N&I: What are your interests outside of work?

JH: That’s always a dangerous thing to ask an academic, because they have to try to think about things that are interesting to non-academics. I’m a really lousy skier. So I enjoy doing that and trying not to hurt myself. This is British Columbia, so I go skiing, I go hiking. Not as often as I like.

And perversely, given that my job involves a lot of professional travel I love traveling.

And one of the things I love to do is reading, and reading things outside of my research area. So I always try to have one or two books on my bedside table and read before I go to sleep.

N&I: What are you reading right now?

JH: Two books, as I always do. The first is Purity by Jonathan Franzen. I’m quite enjoying that. The second book is by two authors. One’s a favourite of mine, Etgar Keret, who’s an Israeli essayist and humourist, and the other is a Palestinian author named Samir el-Youssef. It’s called Gaza Blues.