Society and Culture

Meet eight honorary degree recipients who are building a better world

Graduates will hear speeches from people who advanced Indigenous Peoples’ rights, improved the field of search and rescue, and made new medical discoveries.

  • April 23, 2024
  • By Sandrine Camminga

A law professor who champions Indigenous Peoples’ rights, a search-and-rescue expert and a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who helped make laser eye surgery possible are among this year’s eight inspiring spring honorary degree recipients.

“Honorary degrees are the university’s highest honour, recognizing people who inspire our students, who reflect the best of what our university strives to achieve, and who have made remarkable contributions to our community and the world,” says U of A chancellor Peggy Garritty. 

“At this year’s spring convocation, we’re proud to honour and celebrate people with diverse backgrounds, talents and achievements who certainly meet that bar. Congratulations to this year’s honorary degree recipients."

Richard Smith

Richard Smith transformed the field of search and rescue in Alberta. He has always supported the communities around him, participating in the Royal Canadian Army Cadets as a youth and serving in the Royal Canadian Army for more than five years. He began his 21-year career with the RCMP in 1977. In 1986, Smith managed the search for two-year-old Jesse Rinker who, unfortunately, wasn’t found alive. In response to that incident, Smith devoted himself to advancing search and rescue services. He co-founded the Emergency Response Institute Canada, co-authored five text books about search and rescue, taught the field’s best practices nationally and internationally, and helped establish Search and Rescue Alberta. He also participated in more than 600 missions and in 1997-98 completed research and development with the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta in the field of lost person behaviour. In 2017, Smith worked with Shell Canada to develop a permanent training facility. Smith has been recognized with multiple awards, including the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers.   

Richard Smith will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree June 2 at 2:30 p.m.

Connie Varnhagen

Connie Varnhagen is a professor emerita of psychology at the University of Alberta who champions undergraduate research and helps thousands of Albertans support their pets’ health. As academic director of the Undergraduate Research Initiative from 2011 to 2017 and instructor in the Faculties of Science, Arts, and Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, she led students in research on the human-animal bond and human well-being. This research inspired Varnhagen to establish the volunteer organization Alberta Helping Animals Society in 2015, which helps vulnerable Albertans access no-cost veterinary care and other services. Recognized as a 3M National Teaching Fellow in 2012 and honored by the Alberta Veterinary Technologist Association in 2016, Varnhagen’s work reflects a profound commitment to education, research and community service. 

Connie Varnhagen will receive an honorary doctor of science degree June 12 at 3 p.m.

Charles Lee

Charles Lee made a revolutionary discovery in 2004 while serving as a member of Harvard Medical School’s faculty: Genes don’t always occur in two copies per cell. This finding uprooted the field of human genetics, leading to new genetic diagnostic tests and a better understanding of human disease and evolution. Lee’s academic impact stretches well beyond this discovery. He has contributed more than 190 publications to peer-reviewed journals and has been cited more than 81,000 times. Lee became the inaugural scientific director of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in 2013, which he still leads. He advised the State of Connecticut to help it navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, and he was inducted as a Fellow of the Korean Academy of Science and Technology in 2023. From 2017 to 2023 Lee served as president of the Human Genome Organization, and his contributions to human genetics have been recognized by multiple organizations, including the American Association for Cancer Research and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Charles Lee will receive an honorary doctor of science degree June 13 at 10 a.m.

Lorne Tyrrell

Lorne Tyrrell, a University of Alberta Distinguished Professor, has accomplished several milestones in researching and treating hepatitis viruses over four decades. He created the first oral antiviral therapy for chronic hepatitis B alongside Morris Robins in 1998 and established the first non-primate animal model for hepatitis C with Norman Kneteman and David Mercer in 1999. This latter team established KMT Hepatech, which tested antivirals to treat the disease for more than a decade as part of an exclusive contract with the National Institutes of Health. Tyrrell is the founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology and associate director of the Applied Virology Institute. His past roles include serving as the dean of the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and  as a member of the federal government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. Tyrrell has received multiple awards for his work and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.


Lorne Tyrrell will receive an honorary doctor of science degree June 14 at 3 p.m.

Robert Foster

Robert Foster is a global life sciences leader and an adjunct professor with the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta. He discovered and developed voclosporin, which was approved in 2021 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat kidney dysfunction in people with lupus. Foster founded the biopharmaceutical company Isotechnika in 1993. He has published more than 200 papers, abstracts and book chapters that focused on drug analysis, development and pharmacometrics, which uses mathematical models to understand how drugs work in the body. Foster most recently served as CEO of Hepion Pharmaceuticals, where he oversaw the development of rencofilstat, a drug to treat diseases of the liver associated with metabolic disorders. 


Robert Foster will receive an honorary doctor of science degree June 17 at 3 p.m.

Catherine Bell

Catherine Bell is a professor emerita with the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta, where she taught for more than three decades. She was the first full-time professor in the faculty to focus on how Canadian law affects Indigenous Peoples, and she continues to champion the rights of Indigenous Peoples. She has influenced Indigenous heritage law, policy and practice and Métis rights and collaborative research methods. Bell has also been a visiting scholar at numerous academic institutions and has developed and taught courses to support Indigenous legal education across Canada. She co-developed the faculty’s Low Income Individuals and the Law clinical law course (with the Edmonton Community Legal Centre and Legal Aid Alberta) and co-developed an experiential learning program on Gladue Sentencing Principles (with Alberta Justice). She also supervised the Kawaskimhon National Moot. Accolades celebrating Bell’s work include the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Governor General’s Gold Medal awarded by the Canadian Bar Association. Now she’s focusing on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, repatriation and reform of Canadian heritage law, policy and practice. Bell serves on the Board of the Indigenous Heritage Circle.

Catherine Bell will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree June 18 at 10 a.m.

Donna Strickland

Donna Strickland, professor in the department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo, is one of the recipients of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing chirped pulse amplification with Gérard Mourou, her PhD supervisor at the time. This technology is now used in laser eye surgery and for cutting glass cell phone components. Strickland joined the University of Waterloo in 1997 and leads an ultrafast-laser group that develops high-intensity laser systems for non-linear optics investigations. The goal of this technology is to cure presbyopia, an eye condition that prevents older adults from focusing on nearby objects. Strickland is a Companion of the Order of Canada and a recipient of a Sloan Research Fellowship, a Premier’s Research Excellence Award and a Cottrell Scholar Award.

Donna Strickland will receive an honorary doctor of science degree June 20 at 10 a.m.

Reneltta Arluk

Reneltta Arluk is Inuvialuk, Gwich’in, Denesuline and Cree from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, recognized for her contributions to decolonizing theatre as an actor and director. Her identity as a multidisciplinary artist was shaped by her experiences while being raised on the trapline by her grandparents until she went to school. In 2005, Arluk was the first Indigenous woman and first Inuk to graduate from the University of Alberta’s Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting program. She established her theatre company, Akpik Theatre, in 2009 and it has since developed and produced a dozen works. In 2016, Arluk’s rendition of Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole at the Stratford Festival was recognized with an award for artistic direction. She supported the National Arts Centre’s decolonization efforts by helping to create its Indigenous Theatre section, and she supported the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in establishing its Director of Indigenous Strategic Engagement position. Arluk works at the National Gallery of Canada under Indigenous Ways and Decolonization.

Reneltta Arluk will receive an honorary doctor of letters degree June 21 at 10 a.m.