New Year, new leadership style in the chemical sciences

I have a tradition this time of year. I watch Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, staring Bill Murray. You might think it could get a little repetitive, but its messages of agency, kindness, interpersonal impact are timeless. In the film, Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is an egotistical television weatherman who finds himself living the same day over and over. Only he is aware of the cyclical nature of his existence. His escape finally comes when he embraces the people surrounding him and raises them up. In effect, Connors transforms into a leader.

Leadership in Canada’s chemical sector can take many forms. One leader within higher education is Dr. Jonathan Withey, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at Mount Royal University. Looking back, Withey recalls the turbulence of the past three years.

“Normally decisions move slowly. Not so in March 2020. It was a cascade of decision-making. Adrenaline carried us through.”

However, that initial jolt of adrenaline has given way to a work environment where the only constant is change.

Without precedent to guide choices, Withey organized and leveraged teams to minimize the consequences of unintended impacts during the pandemic. Yet, this approach has not been foolproof.

“The transitions – both to remote work and the return – revealed and exacerbated the cracks in teams. Some people are thriving, and it’s as surprising to them as anyone. Others are struggling to find motivation.”

As Dean, he would normally only get involved at an escalation within certain processes. During these unusual times, he has been more involved in the teaching and learning environment than before.

Listening to Withey describe how his role as an academic leader changed over the past three years, I hear an increasing emphasis on relations-oriented and change-oriented leadership.

“The transitions have had differential impacts on people. I find myself helping people participate in processes.”

Sometimes the best action as a leader, Withey explains, is just to be supportive as your team ventures into the unknown.

“‘You’ve got this. You know how to do this.’”

Leveraging time zones for more productive research

In the Chemistry Department at the University of Guelph, Dr. Khashayar Ghandi has also been reflecting on his leadership roles during the chaotic COVID years. Besides teaching, his duties as a principal investigator and research supervisor are foremost on his mind.

Ghandi’s chemical research focuses on high-T high-P aqueous systems comparable to the conditions of nuclear energy reactors. To conduct in situ time-domain studies, Ghandi uses exotic beam irradiation, which requires travel to specialized facilities such as TRIUMF (Vancouver) and Rutherford Appleton Lab (Oxfordshire, UK).

“At first, the pandemic shut everything down. Even when international travel was permitted, there was 14 days quarantine so that you could conduct three days of data collection, and then more quarantine when you returned home.”

Concerned about his graduate students’ training, Ghandi explored new options to keep his students progressing.

“We sent our samples to the UK. The facility team there loaded our sample and made it possible for us to control the beam from Guelph – the beam line magnets, the spectrometer, everything.”

While remote control of instrumentation isn’t novel[1], Ghandi believes that this was the first time it had been done for a beam of radioactive anti-muons.

“It went smoothly. This can change how the work is done. Maybe the whole team doesn’t need to travel. You can have some students controlling the beam remotely.”

The time zone difference between Guelph and Oxfordshire was an unexpected benefit.

“The instrument scientists at Rutherford would load a new sample before they would go home. This matched the time when we were starting our day in Guelph.”

Ghandi’s team would then control the data collection during the day and evening in Guelph, with the Rutherford scientists arriving back at work in time for the Ontarians to go to sleep.

No one had to endure switching their sleep cycle to graveyard shifts and back.

It’s worked so well that they have maintained the practice.

How and where we interact matters

From their distinct roles, institutions, and locations, both Ghandi and Withey reflected on how it took a global pandemic and lockdowns to stimulate a deep rethink of how we work. Yet, I observed that while their words described how we work, their stories emphasized how and where we interact. In my opinion, this has been the greatest impact of the pandemic.

“We have team meetings over MS Teams,” Ghandi says. “It’s functional, but research can’t be sustained in this mode alone. People want (in-person) human connections.”

It was a particularly challenging experience for new graduate students who did not have pre-existing relationships in Guelph.

Similar to Withey’s experience, Ghandi observed significant variation in his team’s productivity during the transitions.

“Some were working at 90% or higher, while others were close to 10%. I wasn’t fully prepared for the different needs of my students, especially those that wanted to connect in person while we were in lockdown.”

Ghandi argues that Canada needs to invest in research on chemistry education and the training of highly qualified personnel (HQP) while we can still collect relevant data.

“This experience gave us valuable data on training HQP in emergency and non-ideal conditions. We need more research on teaching and training HQP in chemistry.”

Ghandi suggests that such research could provide important insights for trainees, their supervisors, their universities, and their future employers.

Researchers, Deans and other leaders – in academia, industry, and government – don’t get the benefit of being the fictional character Phil Connors. They don’t get to repeat a day over and over trying different options until they find the perfect solution that meets everyone’s needs. They get one shot at each day. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes not.

Leaders that demonstrate relations-oriented approaches help others participate in the processes. Leaders that engage change-oriented strategies ensure that the ingenuity of the past few years continues. In terms of Canada’s chemical sector, I believe that this year will belong to leaders that integrate relations-oriented and change-oriented leadership within their practice.

Happy New Year!

Brett McCollum is a professor of chemistry at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, a 2019 3M National Teaching Fellow, and the Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. He has previously served as the MRU Board of Governor’s Chair in Educational Leadership, and Chair of SoTL Canada (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Canada). His research focuses on effective uses of technology for chemistry education, student development of chemical language and representational competencies, and approaches to enhancing student engagement in research partnerships.

[1] McCollum, B. (2019, November). Networking instrumentation for remote access. CIC News.