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A lifetime in academia

These six alumni are making great strides in their university careers
February 11, 2016
By Isaac Olson

For many Concordia alumni, their university years ignited passions that sent them on their life paths. For a select few, that passion would inspire a lifetime in academia, researching, writing about and teaching the wonders of law, religion, signal processing, building engineering, social entrepreneurship, art history and more.

Many of Concordia’s own faculty members are alumni of the university. Other universities also recognize the value of a Concordia degree and a number of graduates find academic homes elsewhere. We profile six alumni working in academia, who all attribute a good portion of their achievements and scholarly devotion to their time at Concordia.

Peter Sankoff Peter Sankoff: Focusing on the criminal trial process
Man of law: Peter Sankof

The academic, law school life of Peter Sankoff, BA 92, has taken him around the world and earned him a number of awards. Yet the professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law says studying broadcast journalism at Concordia more than 20 years ago played a key role in his career. “Mostly, I learned how to write,” says Sankoff. “It taught me a great deal about how to communicate with people. Even now I talk about my Concordia experience all the time.”

When Sankoff was earning his BA, broadcast journalism was a joint degree between the Department of Communication Studies and Department of Journalism. Because of that, he says, “I learned a great deal about communication theory.” Years later, Sankoff uses both the theory of communication and practical application skills to transmit information about difficult concepts to law students and the public. He relies on his Concordia training to create videos that explain complex concepts in “unique and innovative ways” that people are able to more easily understand and re-member, he says.

After graduating from Concordia in 1992, Sankoff stayed at his alma mater as a teaching assistant for a year be-fore heading into law school. He earned his JD (Juris Doctor) at the University of Toronto and then worked as a law clerk for the Supreme Court of Canada for a year and as counsel in the federal Department of Justice for another two years. From there, he headed to the other side of the world to become a lecturer at New Zealand’s University of Auckland. He eventually came back to Canada to earn his LLM (Master of Laws) at York University.

Sankoff became a full professor at the University of Alberta in 2012. Over the years he has been a visiting professor to several schools, including the University of Haifa in Israel in 2008, the University of Melbourne in 2009 and Niigata University in Japan in 2012.

Throughout his career, Sankoff has also garnered a series of awards, grants and recognition. Most recently, he earned the Information Technology Innovation Award from the University of Alberta in 2014. He has also written, edited or co-edited eight books and a gamut of articles.

“I work in a few areas of speciality, mostly on criminal justice issues. I have a side interest in the relationship between animals and the law, where I look at the way the law governs the relationship between humans and non-humans,” says Sankoff. “I am interested in the way animals are treated by humans and in exposing where the law supposedly protects animals, but really allows us to treat them as we want.”

Charmaine Nelson Charmaine Nelson: Shedding light on the
representation of slavery in western art
Art and memory: Charmaine Nelson

Charmaine Nelson, BFA 94, MFA 95, says her passion for art history grew from her Concordia undergrad experience. She still thrives in the field as she studies, teaches and writes about the impact trans-Atlantic slavery has had on people of the African diaspora and the art and visual culture of the West.

After Nelson earned her BA and MA degrees in art history at Concordia, she took some time off school to work in Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum. She started her PhD at Queen’s University and completed it at the University of Manchester in England in 2001.She soon teaching began at the University of Western Ontario, becoming the first black person to be hired into a tenure-track, art history position in a Canadian university. Nelson moved to McGill University in 2003 and is now an associate professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies.

Nelson retains fond memories of Concordia. Although she started her undergrad program majoring in English, by the time she took her first art history elective she was hooked. Despite her initial low mark, the department chair, Donald Andrus, encouraged her to pursue her budding passion and change her major. She says Andrus became one of her greatest friends and supporters, acting as her mentor throughout her graduate studies.

Two decades later, Nelson has be-come an often-published academic and has just finished her sixth book, Slavery, Geography, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica (Ashgate Press).

Nelson’s teaching focuses on Canadian art history, although her re-search is much broader. Along with studying art that depicts black people during the days of trans-Atlantic slavery, she also studies what little art the enslaved people left behind. The enslaved, she says, were regularly exploited as artisans for the benefit of their white owners and some managed to acquire the skills to produce “high” art. Yet no matter how fine their craftsman-ship, they often went without credit or compensation, and much of their production, which retained their African cultural heritage, was considered by whites to be of little value. The enslaved also made, for example, elaborate clothing and head wraps from natural materials and dyes, reminiscent of their days before captivity.

“The trick for me now as a researcher looking back is I know the enslaved people were constantly producing culture but, for the most part, the actual artifacts themselves don’t exist anymore,” she says. “What we have to go back to are descriptions of the objects as described by the racially biased, white slave owners. The archive is poisoned. You always have to weed out that white bias against that population, and that makes it really tricky work.”

Anita Nowak Anita Nowak: Empathy plus action leads to
sustainable social change
The Power of Empathy: Anita Nowak

When Anita Nowak, GrDip 99, studied in the graduate diploma program of Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies, she says “a whole new world of cultural studies opened up to me.”

That experience ushered in an era of activism for her as she first became interested in women’s issues, in particular their representation in the media. And following a rather circuitous academic path, she eventually discovered her passion for social entrepreneurship — one grounded in empathy.

Now with a long list of awards and international speaking engagements under her belt, Nowak still looks back to Concordia as having pointed her in the right direction. “My graduate diploma is what led me to pursue a master’s in media and communication studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.”

She returned to Montreal to earn her PhD in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University, graduating in 2011. While there, Nowak took on a full spectrum of professional and volunteer roles before even graduating.

Upon graduation, she helped launch the Social Economy Initiative (SEI) at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, serving as its integrating director for two years. The SEI was launched to integrate social entrepreneurship and social innovation into the faculty’s teaching, research and outreach.

She was then invited to become director of operations for the Social Learning for Social Impact Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that was produced by McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services and launched last fall by the non-profit open-source provider edX. Co-designed by Henry Mintzberg, BA 62, LLD 01, Leslie Breitner, Carlos Rueda and Nowak, she describes the course as “the ultimate opportunity for like-spirited people who want to work together to change the world.” She adds, “When a group of strangers meet online and successfully launch a crowdfunding campaign to create a mobile school for a Syrian refugee camp, you have to just step back and say ‘wow’ to the power of online collaboration.”

Nowak also advised the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation on its youth-focused, social entrepreneurship initiative called RECODE, as well as the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation on its inaugural Public Leadership Program. She is currently writing a book called The Empaths Strike Back. “I don’t think good social entrepreneurship happens unless it’s actually grounded in empathy. And empathy — unlike pity, sympathy or compassion — allows us to really feel and see that we share a common humanity.” She adamantly adds: “But empathy alone is not enough. Empathy plus action, or what I call empathic action, is what leads to positive, sustainable social change.”

Nowak also teaches social entrepreneurship at McGill and earned the 2014 Professor of the Year Award from the Desautels Management Undergraduate Society.

She thoroughly enjoys watching her students take concepts from the class-room and translate them into concrete social impact projects, such as the Centre Magnétique, a co-working space launched in Lac-Mégantic to support its nascent SME community. “I have dozens of examples of former students creating change in the world,” she says. “That’s the beauty of the work I’m doing.”

Paulo S.R. Diniz: Signal processing’s use is pervasive today Paulo S.R. Diniz: Signal processing’s use is pervasive today

Signal processor: Paulo S.R. Diniz

Montreal winters were a bit shocking for Brazilian Paulo S.R. Diniz, PhD 84, when he arrived at Concordia in 1981 to pursue his PhD in electrical engineering. More than three decades later and back in his warmer homeland, Diniz is now a long-serving professor and researcher at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

“I wanted to study in an English-speaking country and Concordia had several high-profile researchers in the area of signal processing,” Diniz says about his decision to attend Concordia. Signal processing is a broad term that describes the many different physical, symbolic and abstract forms of information transfer. “I liked Montreal very much. Although the winters are harsh for Brazilians, I found the summers were very lively and colourful.”

In the early 1980s, Diniz studied under Professor Andreas Antoniou and developed a friendship with Professor M.N.S. Swamy. “I saw something interesting at Concordia. It was a university that was going in a good direction in a sustain-able way while, comparatively, graduating people at a lower cost to the student than other North American universities.”

Concordia, he says, attracted “very bright” researchers and professors who were leaders in the field. That, in turn, attracted him to the institution. After graduating, he soon became a full professor at the UFRJ and for the last 20 years he has been a top-ranked re-searcher in his country. Diniz has zeroed his studies in on signal processing and has worked as a consultant in the fields of oil, gas and cellular communication.

At UFRJ’s Program of Electrical Engineering and Department of Electronics and Computer Engineering, Polytechnic School, Diniz has published more than 300 journal and conference articles, and his three books have become standard reading in many electrical engineering departments around the world. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Victoria, the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and the Helsinki University of Technology in Finland.

“When I first started studying, the technology was not there and everything was much more expensive to implement,” says Diniz. Back then, he adds, researchers knew the field would go far, but they didn’t know it would go as far as it has. He feels that continued evolution in technology has been both exciting and engaging throughout his career.

“Nowadays we see signal processing everywhere, from my sound system to my mobile phone to my internet connection,” Diniz says. “When you receive an image or a music file through your computer, everything is coded and com-pressed by signal processing. Signal processing is ubiquitous in our lives to-day. You can do whatever you want with this technology, from restoring paintings to diagnosing rare diseases.”

Christopher Austin Christopher Austin: Learning Sanskrit led to eastern religious studies

Religious scholar: Christopher Austin

Christopher Austin, BA 96, MA 02, locked his sights on religious studies and philosophy early on in his academic career. He began his studies with the mindset that he was going to research all orthodoxies and denominations from east to west. That changed during his time in the master’s program, when studying Sanskrit abroad in the summer of 1997 ignited Austin’s passion for Hinduism.

Encouraged by his Concordia professors to learn Sanskrit, the guidance helped set him on a path to what is now a permanent position as an associate professor in religious studies at Dalhousie University. However, Austin notes, it wasn’t just learning Sanskrit that ensured his future in academia. “While getting the MA, I went through a phase where I was spinning plates at minimum wage full time to pay rent. It was pretty precarious for my degree.” However, Austin credits the graduate program assistant at the time, Tina Montandon, BA 81, and graduate program director Leslie Orr with helping him finish the degree and move on to the next stage. “She basically said, ‘No, you’re going to finish your MA.’ She prevented me from doing this disastrous thing.”

Austin went on to earn his PhD at McMaster University in 2008. His doctoral dissertation explored the two concluding books of the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic poem from roughly 300 CE. His doctoral research took him to the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, India, where he read the Mahabharata and its commentarial literature from the institute’s centuries-old manuscripts.

His research now revolves around the Hindu god Vishnu and his earthly manifestation as Vasudeva Krishna. Austin teaches Hinduism, Buddhism in India, Tibet, China and Japan, Daoism, Confucianism and Shinto. He has writ-ten several scholarly articles and has a book manuscript in the making called Pradyumna: Magician, Lover and Scion of the Avatara.

Austin acknowledges that he had some luck landing a tenure-track position at Dalhousie in 2009 within two years of completing his PhD. In fact, he says his friends and family questioned the potential employability in his topic of study. “Now that I’m doing it, there’s no question that it’s the right thing,” he says of his religious studies track. “When you do something you really love, you’ve got the energy for it. You don’t burn out. This was definitely the right choice.”

Miljana Horvat Miljana Horvat: Bridging architecture and building science

Seeking beautiful and energy-efficient buildings: Miljana Horvat

As she worked throughstudies at Concordia’s Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Miljana Horvat, PhD 05, was preparing for a job in the private sector where she could combine her education as both an architect and building engineer. Instead, soon after graduation she was drawn to Toronto’s Ryerson University. She now focuses much of her research on high-performance building envelopes and integrating solar-generating systems into architecture and urban design in ways that are both eye-catching and energy-efficient.

Horvat arrived at Concordia for her PhD after completing her under-graduate studies in architecture at the University of Belgrade and master’s degree in architecture from McGill University. She shifted toward the engineering approach by focusing her doctoral studies on building-envelope performance and how to effectively assess it.

At Concordia, Horvat studied under the late Professor Paul Fazio who, at age 75, died in September 2014 after a career at the university dating back to 1967. Fazio founded the university’s Centre for Building Studies in 1977. “It was exciting and very inspiring working with Dr. Fazio,” says Horvat. “It was really a great experience not just be-cause of the project I was working on but working with other PhD students and professors with various expertise. It was quite mind-opening.”

Her PhD dissertation won the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Housing Studies Achievement Award in 2005, in recognition of its contribution to housing research in Canada.

Ryerson caught Horvat’s eye because, she explains, it’s the only university in North America that has building science and architecture under one roof. “It felt like the position was written for me,” she says.

Horvat’s research focuses on architecture’s role in solar-building design. She also studies the way heat, air and moisture transfer through a building’s envelope. “Energy efficient and high-performance buildings can also be beautiful and architecturally expressive,” says Horvat. “That’s where my teaching and research interest and passion lie because I am trying to bridge two disciplines — trying to make them work together.

“For a long time, solar energy in general and actual energy-generating components and systems were dealt with exclusively by mechanical and electrical engineers at the fundamental, operational level,” she says. “Yet if we really want to take advantage of sustainable buildings’ performance, bring energy generation to urban areas where energy is most needed, and improve cities’ resiliency necessitated by climatic changes, we have to start thinking differently.”

To effectively do that, Horvat adds, integration of solar components must start from an early design phase of a building, when architects have the greatest input into the overall design. “We must incorporate energy-generating systems into the fabric of our buildings’ environment,” she says.

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