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Spring is all about change and renewal. Deborah Buszard is taking this opportunity to look back over nine years as dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Her second term ends May 31, and she's planning a sabbatical leave.
"It's been a period of evolutionary change at Macdonald Campus," Buszard said of her time there.
As part of the strategic planning exercise that all of McGill has been undergoing, Macdonald Campus is anticipating some changes.
A new library centre is slated to open in 2006, and there are plans for a new biosciences building with room for incubators and product development. Much of the $25 million of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) investment in the faculty is related to biotechnology and molecular biology. The new building will provide much-needed space to accommodate a lot of this equipment.
Over the past 12 years, the faculty has completely renewed farm animal teaching and research facilities at Macdonald. With the official launch of the new Poultry Research Centre next month — a joint effort with Université de Montreal — thanks to a further $4 million of CFI funding and $2 million of private support, the new farm centre will be complete.
Other physical developments include the reorganization of office space within the Macdonald Stewart and Raymond Buildings so that some departments can more efficiently share infrastructure and administrative costs. The School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition will be getting much-needed additional space, and their test kitchen and teaching laboratory will be expanded and updated.
"We're going to renovate space to create 75 quality offices for graduate students in the faculty," said Buszard.
The research-intensive faculty is heavily graduate student oriented (there are approximately 400 graduate students to about 850 undergraduates) and soon there will be even more opportunities for those interested in post-baccalaureate training.
Two new graduate programs are about to be put into place. The Department of Bioresource Engineering, in partnership with the Brace Centre for Water Resources Management, will offer a program certificate that will develop professionals to help in the search for sustainable resources of water, the effective use of water and water conservation.
And in an exciting partnership with the United Nations Environment Program, the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the McGill School of Environment plan to offer graduate programs in environmental assessment.
Last year the Institute of Parisitology launched a new master's program in biotechnology. They admitted 16 students for its first year, and have received 60 applicants for the next. This builds on the graduate-level biotechnology certificate program they began in 2000.
Besides all of the new programs, the faculty's existing academic curricula have evolved to reflect changes in the disciplines and changing interests of incoming students. International field semesters have been developed, the Department of Agricultural and Bioresource Engineering became the Department of Bioresource Engineering last year, offering a new undergraduate program and the Department of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry is undergoing a major review and proposing significant changes to its programs.
The School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition has increased tremendously in popularity over the past few years, which Buszard attributes to "an increasing public awareness of nutrition, and advances in the field. There is so much more awareness of the connection between public health matters (such as obesity) and what we eat," she said. "McGill has an outstanding undergraduate professional program in dietetics, plus a major in nutrition with options such as sports nutrition and food function and safety. It is very attractive to students from around the world."
McGill is also investing in the new fields of bioprocessing and biomanufacturing, developing joint programs with neighbouring John Abbott College and the Biotechnology Research Institute in St. Laurent. The partnership will allow them to share infrastructure and training facilities. John Abbott will teach at the technical level while McGill will take care of university-level courses.
"You might not think of bioprocessing and biomanufacuring as an obvious fit for the faculty," Buszard said, "but if you think of traditional agriculture and food processing as all about getting refined products out of biological systems, it makes sense. Making beer is bioprocessing, in a way."
There are all kinds of applications for this emerging field. For instance, "improved commercial pharmaceutical, food and novel material products will be developed through bioprocessing. It is a manufacturing process that involves using the chemical and biological processes used by living organisms or their cellular components grown in vast numbers, using fementors. Bioprocessing enables the synthesis of complex biological compounds that cannot be made by any other means," Buszard explained.
At the moment, the teaching labs for biotechnology and bioprocessing can accommodate only 24 students, a number Buszard hopes and anticipates the next dean will see increase.
The faculty's turning an eye toward other applications of the new biosciences and technologies too — not just biopharmaceuticals, but also nutraceuticals or functional foods, as well as novel materials such as alternative sources of fuels as replacements for gasoline, or plastic substitutes.
"The animal sciences, plant sciences, parasitology and food sciences are all moving toward an application of the new biosciences," Buszard said. "Those are the future needs of research and teaching facilities for the faculty."
Buszard is particularly proud of her role in helping build relationships between Macdonald and downtown. The development of the McGill School of Environment with the Faculties of Arts and Science in 1998 has led to easier collaboration, aided greatly by the introduction of the inter-campus shuttle bus in 2000.
"As prosaic as it may be," said Buszard, "the bus has facilitated all sorts of things — undergraduate and graduate students take courses on both campuses, and staff and faculty can attend meetings. It's cut down on more than just the physical distance between the campuses it has shortened the intellectual distance as well." And it makes sense for the environment, too. "It would be marvellous to get a sponsor for a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly bus," she said.
The original mandate of Macdonald College was to make a difference and to improve the lives of rural people, she said. "We've seen a lot of development of new technology, but we still work on many of the same issues, and the mission of the faculty is as pertinent today as it was a hundred years ago," she said, pointing out that the research and teaching carried out at Macdonald touches on so many of the globe's pressing questions: food, water, human health, nutrition and the environment.
"I've enormously enjoyed being dean," Macdonald is a very special part of McGill, a wonderful academic community on a beautiful campus, she said. "The students are great and the work people are doing here is so real and relevant."