Five U of A researchers join the ranks of the Royal Society of Canada

Three leaders in their fields and two early-career standouts are among the newest members of the country’s most prestigious scholarly institute.


English professor Julie Rak, a world leader in the study of non-fiction literature, is among five U of A researchers newly named to the Royal Society of Canada. (Photo: Richard Siemens)

For Julie Rak, the truth is often stranger than fiction — and usually more interesting.

“I am interested in true stories, by real people who might seem to be ordinary, but they are never ordinary,” says Rak, Henry Marshall Tory Chair and professor in the Department of English and Film Studies.

As a world leader in the study of autobiography and other forms of non-fiction, Rak has transformed the field of life writing by championing the work of marginalized authors.

“Other people have stories to tell that link to the world that we’re in. If we want to make the world a better place than it is, we need to pay attention to those stories.”

Rak says life writing is not just a genre, but something that can show us how lives are made and circulated, with the power to reveal the inherent dignity in people and call attention to injustice.

“We are in a time when it is really important to think about what individuals have to say, especially if they are from marginalized groups.”

Rak has spent her career helping tell the stories of those who have not been heard, from restoring and reissuing Inuk author Mini Aodla Freeman’s Life Among the Qallunaat after it was altered without her consent in the 1970s, to co-editing Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, an anthology calling for systemic change in Canadian institutions.

“One of the things that I have to do, as a settler scholar, is make room for people who have not had a voice in the Canadian literature conversation, because they haven't had a voice in Canada, either,” Rak notes. “We have to let them tell their stories the way that they want to.”

This work, along with Rak’s far-reaching influence in her field, has earned her a place in the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), the country's oldest and most prestigious scholarly institute.

Joining Rak among the newest RSC fellows from the U of A are business professor Royston Greenwood and chemical engineering professor Janet A. W. Elliott. In addition, English associate professor Jordan Abel and geochemistry professor Daniel Alessi have been named to the society’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

Royal Society fellows are peer-elected, and for Rak this makes it an even greater honour.

“It means that other people have seen what I can do. And they have thought that it was good work, and it doesn't get better than that.”

Royston Greenwood: Revealing how organizations affect society

Throughout his five-decade career, Royston Greenwood, professor emeritus in the Alberta School of Business and one of the world’s most highly cited researchers in his field, has sought to understand the role of organizations in modern society.

Business researcher Royston Greenwood against a white background. (Photo: Alberta School of Business)

Greenwood spent the early days of his career looking at public bureaucracies and mergers between professional firms, but in the last decade has shifted to understanding organizational corruption in cases like the bankruptcy of Parmalat, one of the largest business firms in Italy in its time.

Greenwood says understanding how professional firms are monitored and governed is more important than ever.

“It raises the issue of institutional trust. As more and more cases of corruption are exposed, we run the risk of a growing loss of respect for core societal institutions.”

Together with his colleagues at the U of A, Greenwood has built a strong collegiate system with universities around the world, fostering collaborations he credits for contributing to his global influence.

“This is an honour to me personally, but I would not have received it without the colleagues and doctoral students over the past 50 years who have inspired me, listened to me, challenged me and encouraged me.”

Janet A. W. Elliott: Creative thermodynamicist

Janet A. W. Elliott, distinguished professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Canada Research Chair in Thermodynamics, has made significant contributions in diverse areas of engineering, science and medicine.

Janet A. W. Elliott is pictured in her office overlooking Edmonton's river valley and downtown. (Photo: Supplied)

Elliott, whose work is focused on applications in surfaces and interfaces and the cryopreservation of cells and tissues, has led breakthrough research to improve our understanding of processes like freezing and evaporation, which can then be applied to challenges such as preserving delicate tissues like corneas for transplant.

Elliott enjoys combining mathematical equations and experimental data in meaningful ways, and creating new understandings.

“You've heard it said that a picture says a thousand words; I like to say that an equation draws a thousand pictures.”

For Elliott, the honour of joining the Royal Society has been a lifelong dream — and a family tradition.

“A family member of mine, Sir Sandford Fleming, was one of the inaugural fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, so this is an honour I have known about since I was a child. It is truly a delight to join such an esteemed group of people.”

Jordan Abel: Speaking truth

Through thinking about intergenerational trauma and thinking about his own history, Jordan Abel, associate professor in the Department of English and Film Studies, hopes to redefine what it means to tell the truth.

Jordan Abel walks in a forest.

In Injun, his Griffin Poetry Prize-winning collection, Abel unpacks the “deeply problematic” — and often racist — representations of Indigenous peoples in western novels published between 1840 and 1950. His latest publication, Nishga, is a memoir that earned him a nomination for Canada’s biggest non-fiction honour, the Hilary Weston Prize.

For Abel, the pain and isolation he felt while uncovering and rediscovering these parts of his own history serve a necessary purpose.

“My hope is that other other intergenerational survivors of residential schools, especially those that have been dispossessed from their territories, will find that my work speaks to their experiences that are so often underrepresented in Indigenous literature.”

As for the newest chapter in his career and his family history, Abel says, “As a first-generation student, I am incredibly honoured to be included in such a prestigious society as the RSC.”

Daniel Alessi: Wellspring of innovation

With the world’s demand for critical metals growing every day, researchers are on the hunt to find more sustainable alternatives to the inefficient and environmentally intrusive open pit mines and salars currently being used.

“We're trying to fill that supply gap that's on the horizon—coming in the next decade,” says Daniel Alessi, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Encana Endowed Chair in Water Resources, of his research.

Geochemist Daniel Alessi confers with a fellow researcher (not pictured) (Photo: John Ulan)

Alessi is at the forefront of a promising new industry, developing groundbreaking technology to use wastewater from the oil and gas industry to create more sustainable alternative sources of lithium and other critical metals.

Alessi’s research also looks into the water cycle in hydraulic fracturing, another growing technology in the energy sector, to support reduced water use and inform risk management plans, and the cycling and fate of metals and contaminants in the environment.

Alessi says he is honoured to be inducted into the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists this year.

“This recognition reflects the efforts of a decade of students and post-doctoral researchers that I have had the privilege of supervising, the generosity of collaborators in my department and across the University of Alberta, and the support I have received from the Faculty of Science.”