Sarah Prichard already feels at home despite the challenges of navigating a new city and campus in her earliest days in the university’s top research post.
“I was brought up in an academic home. I lived an academic life. Academia is in my blood,” said the Acting Vice-President (Research), who started the position July 1.
“An academic environment is so exciting to me. It is the new learning. To hear what people are doing, it is like brain candy. Why would I not want to do this job?”
One year. That is how long Prichard has to “set the table” for a permanent research leader. (She will not be a candidate for the permanent position.) Her goal is to ensure the institution can recruit “the strongest candidate possible” to assist new President Alan Shepard in further developing Western as a research-intensive university.
Part of that future, she explained, can be found in looking at the university’s past.
“This is a university that has had a lot of successes. But what can we learn from those successes to set us up better for the future?” she asked.
Chief among her tasks will be helping Western understand how its previous successes have been constructed and what can be taken from those and applied to future endeavours. It is “a case-based approach” in which Prichard finds great value.
“If you did this in a business school, you would take 10 successful businesses, analyze what was common between them, look at their architecture of success and create best practices from that,” she said.
“For Western, I want to find the common denominators in our successes. What I think you will find is that a lot of our successes came when we worked together in an interdepartmental, interfaculty, cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary way.”
By way of example, she reels off a number of recent successes that cut across traditional boundaries, including work into brain and mind, bone and joint, even severe weather.
The challenge, she admits, is that kind of cooperation is difficult. It is no secret that universities rarely structure people and budgets in a way that encourages that kind of cooperation.
“We work in departments; we work in faculties; we work vertically so often,” she said. “But success, especially at Western, has come when we worked horizontally, when we have cut across the campus.”
Among its benefits, that kind of collaboration helps address inclusivity issues that occasionally arise between arts and sciences. She sees the university’s job as highlighting the role each plays in emerging discoveries.
“Take AI (artificial intelligence),” she said. “There has been a lot written on the computer science side of AI. But think of the philosophy aspects, the ethics, about the societal aspects of AI, how we interact with it. There is a push by government, by industry, by society, to make investments in STEM. That is wonderful. But the spinoffs for other areas are a tremendous opportunity.
“Everything does not have to be about a new device. There are stories about the social implications that are equally important. There is huge currency there.”
Prichard received her Medical degree from Queen’s University and then completed her training in Internal Medicine and Nephrology at McGill University. She speaks English and French.
She joined the Faculty of Medicine of McGill University in 1979 and remained there until 2005, serving as Professor of Medicine and as Associate Dean of Inter-Hospital Affairs for the Faculty of Medicine from 1993-98. She also chaired the Clinical Integration Committee for the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) in the 1990s. In addition, Prichard was President of the Canadian Society for Nephrology and the International Society for Peritoneal Dialysis.
In 2005, she was recruited to Baxter as the Global Vice-President for Medical and Scientific Affairs in the renal line of the business. During a nine-year term at Baxter, she held a number of senior leadership roles within renal as well as with specialty therapeutic pharmaceutical areas.
Between 1991-97 and 2001-05, Prichard served on the Queen’s University Board of Trustees. Previously, she served on the St. Mary’s Hospital Center Board from 1996-2001, including three years as its chair. She was also a member of the Governing Council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) from 2002-05. Currently, she serves on corporate boards, on scientific advisory boards and as a consultant.
A fierce advocate and defender of university research, Prichard sees a need for universities to wake up society to its importance.
“People need to look around their everyday lives and ask themselves, ‘What did research bring to my life?’ Research brings us nearly everything from new materials that we wear and use on a daily basis to an understanding of social structures and policies, to new medicines, to understanding how children learn, to the role music plays in our daily lives, to new joints in our bodies.
“You can look at almost every aspect of your daily life and see that research brought us what we take for granted. It is something everyone benefits from.”
She continued, “I have heard people say, ‘Research is not valuable.’ I say, ‘Excuse me. Show me anything and I will show you something that could not have been done without research at some level.’ Most research that we take for granted today had at least its embryonic component in universities.
“It is naive to say research is not valuable.”
In supporting her belief that university research “sets the dialog for the future,” she stresses participation need not be limited to faculty and a handful of graduate students. The entire student experience – from undergraduates on the first day to PhD candidates walking out of their dissertation defense – depends on an understanding of and a participation in research.
“Research gets students to learn how to think critically. We owe it to them – to all of our students – to offer them an experience in that environment,” she continued. “Our students are not going to go in and join a company tomorrow and be at the same company 40 years from now. They need to be agile in their thinking. Research adds that dimension to a student’s experience.”
While Prichard is still new in the role, she sees a university – and host city – that should embrace, not lament, its smaller size in comparison to competitors. Not being Toronto or Montreal is a plus when it comes to working together as a community. Whether in industry, schools, government or health care, she sees London as an easier place to make connections.
Prichard also sees a university community – from staff and students to faculty and administration – committed to the university and its reputation.
“There is this shared vision, shared sense of purpose that is very strong here,” she said.
Prichard follows John Capone, BSc’78 (Biochemistry), who served in the role since 2012.