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Building on an exceptional year

Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research), sits down with the Gazette to discuss her first sixteen months at Queen’s and share her vision for the future.

[Photo of Dr. Nancy Ross]
Dr. Nancy Ross began her term as Vice-Principal (Research) in August 2021. She is also a faculty member in the Department of Public Health Sciences.

It’s been a little over a year since Nancy Ross joined Queen’s University as Vice-Principal (Research). A former Canada Research Chair and research administrator at McGill University, and Queen’s alumna (Artsci’90, MA’92), Dr. Ross is an award-winning expert in population health. As a member of Queen’s leadership team, she oversees the Vice-Principal Research portfolio and works with internal and external stakeholders to advance the university’s research mission.

From Nobel Prize-winning discovery to enhancing the student learning experience, research is a driving force behind Queen’s impact. It is also the foundation for our future, and prominent in two strategic goals of the Queen’s Strategy. In this interview with the Gazette, Dr. Ross reflects on the past year, breakthrough research achievements, and her plans to support the research community in working to solve the world’s greatest challenges.

What have you learned about the Queen’s research community in your time here? 

I've learned that our research community is creative, resilient, and very committed. 

This year was particular in a lot of ways. We all know about COVID-19, but the other thing that happened in the research ecosystem was an exceptional confluence of funding opportunities open to Queen’s. We were successful in positioning Queen’s to receive significant investments from the Major Science Initiatives Fund and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, opportunities that do not come along every day.

In advancing these initiatives, I learned a lot about the Queen’s research community, its talented people, and our areas of tremendous global strength. I have also learned we have some new and burgeoning areas of excellence that we can continue to support and grow.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the Canadian research landscape?

The pandemic put research and its importance on centre stage for Canadians and the world. Our federal government responded with research investment, for example in the manufacturing of vaccines, which has put new resources into the system that will make us better prepared as a country for future health crises.

Luckily, some research was considered essential during the strictest shutdowns, and we are grateful to those who kept the Queen’s labs going during those times. In fact, investments in technology and research ended up helping society in very unpredictable ways. Queen’s researchers were champions in applying their research knowledge to address pandemic issues – from designing easy-to-build ventilators to supporting wastewater surveillance to serving as experts in media in order to help our communities better understand COVID-19.

[Photo of Dr. Nancy Ross delivering a speech at a podium]
In July, Dr. Ross acted as emcee for a funding announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation, and Trade Vic Fedeli  for a $1.5 billion investment in an EV battery facility in Eastern Ontario that will create hundreds of jobs and partnership opportunities for the university, and boost Ontario’s economy.

What is your vision for Queen’s research and how will you support the community in realizing these goals?

Queen’s is already an important research university in Canada: we are a member of the U15 Group of Canada’s most research-intensive universities. We are also built on a history of people and teams who have had extraordinarily important research careers and international standing, including a Nobel Prize in the not-so-distant past.

To keep this momentum, we need to create the conditions for long and rewarding research careers at Queen’s. This means understanding when time is needed to focus on research and making sure that students are incentivized to come here and work in rich training environments, because the most satisfying part of a research career is preparing the next generation. I hope we can provide lots of opportunities for this to happen. 

I also think we need to capitalize on the fact that we have strength in almost every area of the academy. When I think about the challenges facing the world, such as working towards a low-carbon future or cancer treatment and care, we already can bring people together to look at these issues in a holistic way – from technology to policy. This is not the same case for all institutions. We will certainly work to create the conditions for this interdisciplinary work to play out for the benefit of our research community, our students, but also for the country.    

Considering that one of the goals of the Queen’s Strategy is focused on integrating research and student experience, could you elaborate more on the role of research in fostering these training environments?

When I think about the future of Queen’s and the students who come here to learn from and interact with leading-edge researchers, I see the teacher-scholar model as adding tremendous value for the student experience. Also, in my own research group and, in many others around the university, I know that having a diversity of viewpoints from scholars at all levels really provides the best experience for everybody. It can take also research in new and surprising directions, because these new ideas have an opportunity to come through.

I feel like when you are a researcher in the classroom, you gravitate towards integrating what you know and do every day, and this is research. We hope that with more opportunities to pursue research at the undergraduate level, students will be inspired by these interactions and perhaps continue to graduate studies.  

From Cathleen Crudden’s $24M New Frontiers in Research Fund grant to significant renewal funding for the Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG) and SNOLAB, this has been a significant year for Queen’s research. What has been the most memorable moment for you?

It has been a very exciting year for developments in global consensus on scientific need and knowledge. I will say that participating in August’s Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Major Science Initiatives announcement, 2 km underground at SNOLAB, was simultaneously a thrilling and terrifying experience. It served as a great opportunity to interact with the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry, François-Philippe Champagne, the President of the CFI, Dr. Roseann O'Reilly Runte, and Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor.

With $122M in funding for CCTG and SNOLAB, Queen’s was at the forefront of this funding award, receiving the largest share in Canada. I think all of us can be proud of our role in these major research infrastructure projects, which are clearly very important, not only to Canada, but to the world.

Like all those involved in these projects, many Queen’s researchers are at the forefront of their fields, pushing boundaries and helping to address significant global challenges. As an institution, we can be very excited about what the future holds and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next year will bring!

[Group photo at SNOLAB]
Dr. Nancy Ross accompanies Queen's Emeritus Professor and Nobel Laureate Arthur McDonald, Minister François-Philippe Champagne, local Members of Parliament, and SNOLAB administration on a tour of the facility during the CFI Major Science Initiatives Fund announcement.

Learn more about Queen's University's 2022 Year in Research.