Fitzpatrick, Dr. Dennis

2010 Outstanding Contribution to the Alberta Science and Technology Community, Winner

Turning a Small University into a Major Research Centre

When Dr. Dennis Fitzpatrick arrived at the University of Lethbridge in 1999 as the new VP Research, he had a mandate to create nationally recognized programs. He recognized the small university had a modest research profile and a pool of good researchers. He also knew that the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta had a long history of research that overshadowed University of Lethbridge’s limited resources.

“It was like opening up a corner store beside a major retail chain,” Dr. Fitzpatrick recalls.

The primary product of research and the value of a university education is highly trained students and the opportunities it creates for them. 

Finding Funding

“What we accomplished in 10 years is only possible at a small institution,” he continues. “Because we didn’t have any resources, we had to find ways to build them. This was challenging in Alberta because of the province’s history of funding primarily meritorious institutions. So we had to find leading-edge programs to get the funding. It was like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?”

Under Dr. Fitzpatrick’s leadership, the University of Lethbridge has evolved into a comprehensive research and instructional university with strong ties to the provincial technology community. During the last 10 years, the university’s research budget has grown from $2 million to almost $24 million in 2010.

“The money increases the kinds of opportunities that impact the lives of people in Alberta and especially southern Alberta,” Dr. Fitzpatrick says. His ‘think big and shoot high’ philosophy is fundamental to the university’s success, as is his vision to deliberately focus on developing specific areas with programs of instruction and research in tandem.

Developing Expertise

Dr. Fitzpatrick’s strategic thematic approach was instrumental to the university’s ability to develop expertise and become a centre of excellence in the following areas: neurosciences, water resources in semi-arid ecosystem, biotechnology, genomics biochemistry, earth imaging applications for integrated resource management and imaging technology, and the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy.

“When we built the research infrastructure we looked beyond the individual researcher’s needs to see if we could create a toolbox to serve many people,” explains Dr. Fitzpatrick. He explains that when developing resources in the emerging field of neuroscience, the university department included biochemistry, biology and behavioural sciences because the field has such a broad-based focus.

“We didn’t only build one lab, we built 10, opening up a whole new area of expertise,” Dr. Fistzpatrick says. “These are the kinds of things that pay off. People get involved in creative research partnerships that allow them to do research in better, more sophisticated ways. We’re providing bright people with a whole new set of tools so they can now do remarkable research. And we’re training a new generation of scientists in ways we never anticipated.”

Paramount in Dr. Fitzpatrick’s mind is providing opportunities for students “The primary product of research and the value of a university education is highly trained students and the opportunities it creates for them,” he says. “Because of our system, the University of Lethbridge has become a launching pad for students to go to graduate school and on to the rest of their careers.”