Meet the President

David Turpin once worked as a scuba instructor — and more fun facts about the U of A's 13th president

By Geoff McMaster on August 14, 2015

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David Turpin, photographed in the office of first University of Alberta president Henry Marshall Tory [Photo by Richard Siemens]

On July 1, David Turpin began his duties as the University of Alberta’s 13th president, getting to know campus better and working to define the priorities for his term. At the same time, the U of A community has been getting to know Turpin. To that end, we present some facts about the new president. For more, watch “Conversations with the President”.

It all started with the World Book Science yearbook. His parents bought him the book in Grade 4, and he was particularly inspired by images of Earth taken from the Gemini space capsules. “The book said these photographs would be of great use for geographers and oceanographers,” recalls Turpin. “And I asked my mom, ‘What’s an oceanographer?’ She told me and I said, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ ” Turpin went on to receive a PhD in botany/oceanography from the University of British Columbia in 1980.

He worked his way through university as a scuba instructor. In fact, one of Turpin’s first mentors, when he was a young teenager, was his own scuba instructor. “I learned from him the importance of taking responsibility for people around you.”

His major body of academic work is in the area of photosynthesis, respiration and nitrogen assimilation. The title of his PhD thesis was “Processes in nutrient-based phytoplankton ecology.”

His proudest moment was winning the Queen’s University alumni award for excellence in teaching. “When I started off, I wasn’t a very good teacher. I was extremely nervous. I paid a lot of attention to people who were far better than I was. … I talked to people; I read about how to be better in the classroom. So when I was honoured with that award, I was extraordinarily proud to receive it because of the hard work that went into it. What that taught me was that it’s important to recognize your weaknesses, because if you know what they are then you can work on them.”

Before coming to the U of A, he was president of the University of Victoria. From 2000 to 2013.

He has been involved in more than 250 meetings about the U of A before even starting his term as president. “So many people we’ve met speak with fierce pride about the U of A and have shared with us their belief that this university — having already made countless contributions — has the potential to have an even greater impact on the well-being of the city, province and country.”

During his time as president of UVic, Aboriginal enrolment increased tenfold. From around 80 students when he started to more than 1,000 when he stepped down. “The fastest-growing youth population in Canada is our First Nations population, and yet educational attainment in that population is amongst the lowest in the nation. There’s a huge responsibility we have as Canadians and as academics to reach out and provide opportunities for Aboriginal students.”

He believes a public institution should take on tough issues. Universities have a responsibility to participate in public discourse on tough and controversial issues, says Turpin. “One of the things I love about universities: you’ve got this incredible group of extraordinarily talented people who are working on issues that really matter to society. And one of our responsibilities is to talk openly about them.”

In his free time, he heads for the outdoors. Turpin and his wife, Suromitra Sanatani, are looking forward to exploring the many opportunities to get out and get active in Alberta. “Suromitra and I just love being outside. We love boating. We have a place in the wilderness that we retreat to and really enjoy being out in nature.”

Edmonton is already starting to feel like home. “Suromitra and I have been so warmly welcomed into this community—we have never felt anything like it.”