Lesley Rigg believes that achieving the best outcomes requires community and connecting with others.
Those principles guide her vision as Western’s vice-president of research, and underlie the message in Western Research’s new strategic plan, Mobilize for Impact!
In the new plan, Rigg lays out her vision to “stimulate research, scholarship and creative activity,” a focus grounded in the first theme of the university’s strategic plan Towards Western at 150. The plan reflects Rigg’s passion for research, her optimism punctuated from the title’s exclamation mark to its overall call for collective action.
“I am definitely a glass half-full person,” she said. “Research has led to so many positive outcomes throughout history. Think about the COVID vaccine and how quickly that happened. Think about transportation and the fact that a plane can fly. All these things are marvelous to me; it’s the joy of learning.”
Even the process of research itself had a life-changing impact on Rigg.
“I’m a first-generation student. My mom was a single mom. I worked all through high school, I had three jobs through university and paid for it myself.
“My life trajectory was not to be a VP of research, but a professor tapped me on the shoulder in year three of my undergrad and asked, ‘What are you doing this summer?’”
That query brought a response that resulted in Rigg working on a methane emissions project in Northern Ontario. The following summer, after earning a student grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, she headed to Belize to work on her honours thesis.
She went on to earn her PhD from the University of Melbourne, where she began her academic career as a lecturer in 1997.
“Just the physical activity of research changed my life and opened doors for me that would have never opened. They weren’t even doors I knew existed.”
Laying the foundation
With a goal to “support research, foster inclusiveness, advance collaboration, and facilitate, recognize and celebrate success,” the new strategic plan comes from a Western Research perspective, Rigg said. “We’re focused on laying the foundation for future success by ensuring we have the right people, processes, structure and vision in place.”
The plan was recently approved by Senate and the Board of Governors. It underscores Western Research’s commitment to provide professional services, strategic guidance, support and programs across a project’s lifespan – from inception to development, completion and dissemination.
“It takes a community,” Rigg said, with the plan rallying the entire campus to mobilize around three areas: a shared vision for research, scholarship and creative activity; supports that enable success; and knowledge created to positively impact society.
“A researcher can have a great idea, but a great idea doesn’t equate to impact without support. They can’t do it alone. The community allows them to take that idea and make it something.”-Lesley Rigg
Rigg noted that impact takes many forms, whether it is a scholar creating knowledge and shaping policy, an artist creating culture or a research team developing novel technologies.
“Impact can be an overused word,” she said. “For us it means change; purposeful change that shifts the way our culture, our environment, and our communities think, act, behave and respond.”
Four principles, four goals
The plan centres on four principles: catalyze research; advance equity and inclusivity; engage partners; and balance risks and opportunities.
“Understanding the risks is the springboard to transformation in high-risk, high-reward and curiosity-driven research,” Rigg said.
Rigg has also set four measurable goals: enhance research support; foster relationships; connect to our world; and tackle grand challenges.
Those challenges include systemic racism, sustainability, socioeconomic inequality, threats to democracy, and climate change. And Rigg is confident Western is well-poised to take them on.
“There’s an ecosystem of excellence here that promotes an environment of acceleration, of research motivation, of big ideas, so the notion of grand challenges is something we can think about realistically,” she said.
“Other places can dream about it, but Western can actually do it. We have the creativity, and we have the energy. And when you bundle those key ingredients up with the will to do it, that will make the difference.”
Rigg has held her current role at Western since August 2020, overseeing a staff of 140 people. She’s quick to credit their achievements.
“The team has accomplished so much this past year,” she said. “Like everyone, we have spent a lot of time focused on COVID-19. I’m proud of how quickly they came together to address rapidly changing needs, while maintaining strong relationships with our community and continuing to provide great service in the face of an incredible workload.
“I have leaned on them to not only provide exemplary service to our community, but to lead several projects, besides the new strategic plan.”
She outlined some of the notable work her team had accomplished: creating new programs for students and postdoctoral scholars; an updated vision for Western Research Parks; and a consistent governance structure for research institutes.
Despite the pandemic, 2021 also marked a banner year for London’s researchers, who attracted more than $267 million in funding—more than any year previous.
“That recognition speaks to the calibre of talent across campus and what we can achieve going forward,” Rigg said.
Western’s recent appointment of David Muir, as its first-ever associate vice-president for innovation and strategic partnership, will further the goal of empowering Western’s research activities to make real-world impacts.
“We’re excited for the future of research, scholarship, and creative activity at Western – and the role Western Research plays in supporting it,” Rigg said.