Plaques celebrate rich history of research

Paul Mayne // Western NewsThe first two historical plaques recognizing Western’s top research moments were affixed to their respective buildings this week. One plaque celebrates the Writer-in-Residence program and adorns University College. Another recognizes the contributions of Zoology professor Helen Battle and hangs outside the Biology and Geology Building.

The campus community had its say and Western is now showcasing some of its top research moments through the creation of digitally linked historical plaques across campus, with the first two distinctive markers affixed to their respective buildings this week.

Vice-President (Research) John Capone said the plaques are one way the university can honour the rich history of research excellence across disciplines at Western.

“We sometimes forget research almost always builds upon previous, incremental discoveries,” he said. “It’s tremendously inspiring to look back at the impact Western’s scholars have had on the world around us, and the influence many of their achievements continue to have on research efforts across campus today. We need to celebrate our work to recognize the contributions we continue to make, and to inspire future generations of scholarship.”

The initial research moments were named by selecting one from a science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) discipline, and one from a social sciences, arts and humanities discipline.

The first two plaques honour the contributions of Zoology professor Helen Battle and her pioneering use of fertilized fish eggs to study the effects of pollutants on aquatic life and drinking water, and the Writer-in-Residence program, Canada’s longest-running program of its kind (since 1972), that has hosted writers like Joan Barfoot, Alice Munro, Penn Kemp and Margaret Laurence.

Battle’s plaque hangs on the Biology and Geology Building; the Writer-in-Residence plaque adorns University College.

Modeled after the Freedom Trail in Boston, but with an enhanced multi-media component, the idea behind the initiative is to encourage people to visit new areas on campus while learning about historical and ongoing research contributions. The project’s accompanying digital component will allow for continued addition of material, including links to current research in related areas.

Capone sees the plaque initiative as having great potential for engaging the campus community, along with visitors, prospective students and alumni, in the strong history of research at Western.

“One of Western’s great strengths is the diversity of research taking place across campus, and the difference our scholars are making in the world, regardless of discipline,” he said, adding the campus community overwhelmingly chose to celebrate Battle and the Writer-in-Residence program, a testament to the calibre of contributions.

“As importantly, it’s poignant we are celebrating both artistic scholarship and a pioneering woman in science with our inaugural plaques,” he said.

Jan Plug, professor and Acting Chair of the Department of English and Writing Studies, said this latest recognition by the university confirms what he’s known for years, which is the department’s role as a centre for the linked activities of intellectual inquiry, cultural creativity and social engagement.

“It says Arts and Humanities continue to be very much at the heart of Western,” Plug said. “The Writer-in-Residence program is a point of pride for our department. We’re absolutely delighted the university community has recognized its contributions to the history of the university.”

He added this recognition of the centrality of creative work, not only at the university but in culture more broadly, has moved the program from what some have called its ‘hidden gem’ status.

“The program received more votes than any of the other nominations – so I’m not sure it’s all that hidden,” Plug said. “It’s very gratifying for everyone involved to see the program get additional attention and know its place in the history of the university will be displayed prominently on the restored University College.”

Pauline Barmby, Acting Dean in the Faculty of Science, said it’s fantastic to see Battle’s achievements recognized in this way.

“Researchers in Western Zoology – and later Biology – have made many contributions to fundamental research. I’m very happy to see them recognized,” she said. “Professor Battle, and other Western pioneers, set a tremendous example for women in science. Their legacy reminds us we’ve made huge progress and that we need to keep working to ensure true equality of opportunity in science.”

Barmby added Battle is a shining example of what an inspiring leader in science is all about.

“She led with passion for her subject and compassion for her students and colleagues. Western Science is proud to have been her academic home,” she said.

With a campus community of more than 40,000, nearly 300,000 alumni and countless visitors each year, Capone added we need to continue to be proud of, and inspired by, contributions Western’s researchers have made to improve our lives over the years.

Plans are to add two new plaques annually. Research Western will solicit the campus community’s input for next year’s selections in February.

“I would encourage each faculty to dig into its institutional memory, and to pass along additional recommendations for consideration for the plaque program,” Capone said. “We can’t celebrate research achievements we don’t know about, and I know there are many more great stories to be told.”

A MARKER OF THE PAST

The first two historical plaques recognizing Western’s top research moments were affixed to their respective buildings this week. One plaque celebrates the Writer-in-Residence program and adorns University College. Another recognizes the contributions of Zoology professor Helen Battle and hangs outside the Biology and Geology Building.

Writers-in-Residence program

Housed within the Department of English and Writing Studies, the largest department in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western University, the Writer-in-Residence program is the longest running of its kind in Canada.  Since its inauguration in 1972-73, the program has been home to such iconic voices as Margaret Avison, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Emma Donoghue, André Alexis, Sheila Heti, Ivan Coyote and, most recently, Daniel MacIvor.

Traditionally supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, the program’s mandate is to provide support for an accomplished writer while allowing the university and the City of London as a whole to benefit from the writer’s creativity and expertise. The more than 40 Canadian writers who have held this position have helped place this residency – and Canada, more generally – on a truly international stage and have done much to define literature in the twentieth and twenty-first Centuries.

The Writer-in-Residence’s contact with the community features an individual, hands-on approach, where developing writers can meet for consultation and feedback on works in progress. The Writer-in-Residence works to raise the profile of literary activity in the community and enriches the local cultural scene, often engaging audiences with little previous literary experience.

Helen Battle

A pioneering Canadian zoologist, Dr. Helen Battle earned her BA at Western in 1923, where she became its first Master of Arts graduate from the Department of Zoology. Her thesis was in the field of fish embryology, an area that fascinated her and in which she went on to make some of her greatest scientific contributions.

She was the first woman in Canada to earn a PhD in marine biology – from the University of Toronto – returning home in 1929 to begin teaching at Western where she pioneered the use of fish eggs to study the effects of cancer-causing substances on cell development.

Her insight, hard work and vision contributed to many subsequent leadership roles, becoming the acting head of the Zoology Department in 1956 and was instrumental in creating the design of Western’s Biology & Geology Building.

One of the first women to enter a field dominated by men, Battle’s first love was teaching, at which she excelled over 50 years. In that time, she taught an estimated 4,500 students, many of whom became leaders in Canadian biology and carried her influence worldwide.