Student, professor, chair: The many faces of philanthropy

Professor Emerita Susan Jensen reflects on the roles she's played at the University of Alberta-and on building a foundation for the next generation with the first Indigenous support endowment in the Faculty of Science.

Andrew Lyle - 25 November 2019

Students, postdoctoral researchers, support staff, faculty lecturers, professors, chairs. In our community, there are those whose stories have charted the course between many of those roles-and continue to support others' journeys today, like Susan Jensen ('BSc, '75 PhD).

Born and raised in Edmonton, Jensen came to call the University of Alberta home for the course of her scientific career, working in the then-emerging field of molecular genetics.

"As an undergraduate student, I was in three different departments. I started in honors chemistry," says Jensen, professor emerita (biological sciences). "Along the way, I discovered how much I liked microbiology."

Once Jensen found that passion, there was no stopping her. After finishing her bachelor's degree, she continued straight into a graduate program in what was then the Department of Microbiology. Following two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, Jensen returned to her roots at UAlberta, becoming one of the first heritage scholar recipients through a program providing funding for cutting-edge research.

"I was a heritage scholar for 10 years," says Jensen. "From there, I stayed in positions here at the University of Alberta for my whole career."

It turned out to be quite the career. Jensen was a professor during the formation of the Department of Biological Sciences and even became its first female chair a year later, paving the way for other female scientists in the department-all while pursuing cutting-edge research.

Breaking new ground

"We were working in the field right at the time when biologists were first realizing that molecular genetics was something they would all be making use of," says Jensen.

Her work in the field would later help develop a new class of antibiotics, and her team became one of a handful in the world working on a compound called clavulanic acid. Jensen would study it until the end of her career-and with good reason. The team studied ways to increase production of clavulanic acid, which. when combined with penicillin, can help overcome some forms of antibiotic resistance in bacteria: a topic that has only grown more pressing over the years.

"I am proud that I was able to make a successful career for myself in one of the best universities in the country, proud of the students that I taught and the research that we accomplished," says Jensen, reflecting on her long career.

"But at the same time, I am forever grateful for the scholarships, fellowships, bursary, and loan programs that made it possible for me to go to university in the first place, and for the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research that gave me my original academic position. "So much of that support was as a result of good fortune, and being in the right place at the right time."

A cause for reflection

Jensen and her husband have been proud donors to the University of Alberta for more than 20 years, helping to support the next generation of students. And looking back on that good fortune, she was inspired to channel that support in a new way-with the Susan Jensen Indigenous Support Endowment, the first support endowment in the Faculty of Science for Indigenous students, supporting students via undergraduate scholarships, bursaries, and fees for equipment and conferences.

"I have reached an age where I have begun to reflect back on my life and how fortunate I have been," explains Jensen. "I attribute my good fortune in large part to my university education and my career as a staff member in the Faculty of Science."

The first scholarships funded through the Susan Jensen Indigenous Support Endowment will be awarded later this year.

A foundation for the next generation

"Our real legacy is our students. I'm proud of my contributions to research, of course-but I wanted to train students who love what they do," says Jensen. "To me, more important than being in the lab around the clock was that they worked hard because they wanted to work hard-because they wanted to pursue what they found interesting, and that they would pass that excitement on to their own students."

As a professor emerita, Jensen continues her support of today's students with a yearly donation to the Faculty of Science: expressing her personal philosophy of mentorship, science, and paying it forward.

"There are very few cases where one makes a discovery and that's the end of the story. Science goes on and on and into other hands. It's important that we remember we're building a foundation for the next generation."


Want to support the Susan Jensen Indigenous Support Endowment? Visit uabgive.ca/jensen. Learn about other initiatives in the Faculty of Science on our giving page.