Meet Matina: An Interview with U of A’s New Dean of the Faculty of Science

The Quad sat down with Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell to find about her work in the faculty so far — and her plans for its future.

Image for Post
Photo by John Ulan

If a tree falls in a forest does anyone hear it? The bats and mice do, and they hear each other too. Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell is curious about that question and countless others. Throughout her career, Matina has worked as a biologist studying communication in small mammals, particularly rodents and bats. After spending most of her career in North Carolina — most recently as professor and Department Head of Biology at UNC Greensboro — Matina returned to her home province of Alberta and joined the U of A community as Dean of the Faculty of Science on July 1, 2019. We sat down with Matina to find about her work in the faculty so far — and her plans for its future.

What attracted you to this opportunity in the Faculty of Science at the U of A?

The opportunity to lead this remarkable Faculty of Science. It’s exceptional in multiple ways, on multiple levels. It’s a faculty known for world-leading research and success in training the next generation of scientists.

I’m at a stage of my career where I’m really interested in leading to facilitate the success of others. From a research perspective, I am more interested in collaborations with others to move science forward, and there is a great group of people in this province and country working on the kind of research I’m interested in — there are a lot of bat biologists here! The opportunity to come back to the province of Alberta was also really attractive. For people who have always lived here, it might be hard to appreciate what an amazing place Alberta is. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s a big, wild place, which is important from an ecological and research standpoint.

What is one fascinating fact from your research that most people don’t know?

When you’re sleeping, you think everything is quiet and dark outside, but that outside space is full of animal activity. The two largest groups of mammals are bats and mice, both in terms of total numbers and number of species. While we are sleeping the skies are full of bats, and the forests and prairies are full of mice, and while we are sleeping, they are communicating with each other with sounds that we can’t hear because those sounds are ultrasonic and above the frequencies that humans can hear. I study those sounds — we eavesdrop on those animals to understand what those sounds are about. Communication between neighbours, between parents and offspring, and between mates, for example. Just even thinking that this is happening in the “silent” night is kind of mind-blowing.

Tell us about some of your recent conservation work.

One current project examines how human-made noise affects communication among mice. [My research team] finds mice in their natural environment and then broadcasts sounds in that environment to see whether the individual mice respond: does noise change how they feed and interact? I try to understand how our activities influence the natural behaviours of animals. Mice are great models for humans and other mammals too — it is much easier to do this kind of work on the scale of mice in their environment as opposed to, say, the scale of other mammals like coyotes or bears.

What have been some highlights during your first seven months at the U of A?

The people! Day after day, I reflect on the amazing people that I work with. I think Science is a faculty that, at all levels has incredible leaders. I’ve been really impressed by the undergraduate and graduate student leadership and staff and faculty leadership in our Departments. The University has talented and dedicated people at the senior leadership level that are moving the institution forward, and it’s been a highlight getting to know them.

I’ve also really enjoyed getting to know the Faculty of Science alumni. I have been spending a lot of time meeting people who have a deep connection to, and are strong supporters of, the faculty. These are dedicated and caring people who, even decades after convocation, are very proud of their roots here.

It really comes down to interacting with people. The best part of this job has been seeing the dedication and commitment that the members of this faculty have.

What do you have planned for the rest of your first year as dean?

I will be focusing on two plans for the Faculty. We are working on our next 5 year Strategic Plan and also on our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) plan. I’ve been working on those plans since day one, and I want to wrap that process up and communicate the plans so that the decisions we make over the next four years can use the plans as foundations.

Image for Post
Photo by John Ulan

What are the high-level goals of the 2020–2025 strategic plan?

The plan acknowledges the faculty’s world-leading science research, innovation, training, learning, and teaching. The plan is about ensuring that we continue with that focus moving into the future. It’s also really critical to let the world know what we’re doing, so that everyone who might have a future stake in this faculty recognizes the potential. We want to be sure that we continue to attract the best students, staff, and faculty to Science at the University of Alberta, and we want to be sure that we cultivate a climate and innovation ecosystem that ensures they stay and continue to enrich our University, our city, our province, and beyond.

You can’t have world-leading excellence in research and teaching without diversity, so that’s something we’ll be really intentional about moving forward. The future of science lies with everyone who is interested in discovery and innovation.

Our plan also involves a focus on collaboration and interdisciplinarity, and of course this is about moving science forward through collaboration among scientists. But, we will also be well served to collaborate among institutions within our system. The province of Alberta has a vibrant, strong, and in many ways, unique post-secondary education system, and I hope we can be leveraging each other’s strengths through collaboration and connections over the next few years.

In the short-term, we are focused on accountabilities including succession planning, a Bachelor of Science renewal project, budget transparency, and sustainability of space. For example, we have state-of-the-art facilities, equipment, and infrastructure, and we have to plan to ensure they remain state of the art as time passes and science progresses.

What does it mean to you that you are the first woman to be a Dean of Science at the U of A?

It is a complicated question, because I would rather be in a place and time where we would not bat an eye at a woman being Dean of Science, but at the same time it is meaningful right now. This complication was communicated by a high school student at one of the first student events I attended at the University of Alberta — a WISEST event with high school students presenting their work. A student asked me, “Do you like to be introduced as the first female Dean of Science or just Dean of Science? Maybe we don’t even want to celebrate the first female part?” What an important and insightful question.

What is meaningful to me is that I am able to be in a room with students, young faculty members, and members of the community who can see me as somebody who maybe reminds them of themselves. I hope that, by having me in this role, they can see being a dean as being part of their career trajectory. Every science student should think ‘I could be Dean of Science someday,’ and we know that having role models is important for these realizations.

What are some of your key pedagogical approaches?

Authentic experiences in science matter for student success. We often think of these as internships, work experiences, and research in the lab with a supervisor. All of those things are really important, and I would not be doing what I’m doing had I not had those experiences.

I think one of the real opportunities at U of A, as a research powerhouse, is bringing research experiences into the classroom, rather than just requiring students to go out and find these experiences. If we are really creative and intentional, we can bring some of the research that’s happening in our faculty into the classroom for course-based research experiences. When I was a biology professor and teaching in my own classes, I really liked doing that. There’s nothing I felt had more of an impact on students than bringing my research into class and labs. This made science authentic by not just talking about the science, but having the students participate in the science as part of their curriculum.

This approach in the classroom and laboratory also relates to EDI, because we know there are barriers for some students accessing traditional science experiences that students have to go out and find on their own. By including the authentic research experiences in our curriculum, we ensure access to those experiences for everyone in our programs.

How has the return to Alberta been for you? What are some things that you enjoy doing in your spare time?

It’s great being closer to family. I love the river valley. I enjoy running at the Saville Centre and in the river valley. And, I spend time watching the Golden Bears and Pandas. They are all fantastic student athletes, and I look out for the science students on the teams to especially cheer them on.