For diabetes researcher and pathology professor Dr. Subrata Chakrabarti, medical progress is most often a cumulation of hundreds of small discoveries by hundreds of scientists, and rarely about any one person’s eureka moment.
“We have to keep trying and testing – and all this incremental knowledge contributes,” he said.
As one of the most cited researchers in his field, Chakrabarti has contributed more than most to the study of diabetic retinopathy, an eye condition that causes blindness among people with diabetes.
Next month, Chakrabarti, along with Western astrophysicist Pauline Barmby and health geographer Isaac Luginaah, will be named Distinguished University Professors, an honour accorded to Western faculty members with outstanding careers in teaching, research and leadership.
Although the new Distinguished University Professors conduct research in vastly different fields, their common quality is the widespread impact of their life’s work internationally and at Western.
They also join a roster of 17 newly named faculty scholars, mid-career Western faculty members with outstanding scholarly achievements.
All 20 professors will be added to the President’s Honour Roll celebrating high-achieving faculty, students, staff and alumni.
Chakrabarti credits his parents for having instilled in him the values of hard work, humility and education. “My father used to say, ‘You do the studying and I’ll find the money for it,’” he recalled.
That drive led him to become an ophthalmologist and then a pathologist, whose identification of RNA molecules controlling cell damage in people with diabetes soon could become integral to diagnosing or treating tissue damage among people with diabetes.
Colleagues who nominated Chakrabarti for the Distinguished University Professor honour noted how effectively he has bridged laboratory research and clinical work with patients; how his prolific research output has generated thousands of citations by peers; and how he inspired students, colleagues and patients alike as chair of the department of pathology and laboratory medicine in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
But Chakrabarti deflects praise to those around him. “When I think of the achievements of others who have received this honour, I think, ‘My little work is being recognized at one of Canada’s greatest universities’ – what could be more gratifying?”
And he keeps his eye on the goal of helping people who have diabetes. “We need to realize every day, when we’re looking at a molecule in the lab, at the end of that research there is a patient going blind as we speak. That’s what’s important. And the best satisfaction is to know we’re all making a difference. It doesn’t matter who does it, as long as it gets done.”
Astrophysicist Pauline Barmby has brought to Earth an understanding of how vast and distant galaxies are birthed. She is one of the most highly esteemed teaching professors in the department of physics and astronomy; and has served in administrative roles to improve the work of the department and the Science faculty.
All that should be enough to make even the most modest professor glow a bit with pride.
Not so with Barmby.
“I’m still pretty flabbergasted” to have been nominated and then selected as a Distinguished University Professor, she said.
“I get to talk about the things I love most. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the career that I’ve had so far, to work with some fantastic people, to do research with some great faculty and students, to work in some great facilities that work better than we would have thought – and to learn some things about the universe along the way.”
Barmby’s nominators noted she is one of science’s most impressive faculty members – with a track record of almost 300 papers and thousands of citations; some of the highest evaluation scores in the department, even while teaching some of the most challenging, largest classes; and serving, at various times in the past seven years, as associate dean, undergraduate physics and astronomy chair, and acting dean of the Faculty of Science.
Her administrative roles in building a strong department have been every bit as challenging – and as gratifying, although in different ways – as her research work into the origins of the universe.
“Comparatively speaking, astrophysics is easy. The universe is complicated – and people are really, really complicated.
“The whole point of academic leadership is that you’re making decisions that are supposed to make people’s lives better and I think I’ve done that.”
Health geographer Isaac Luginaah has his heart fully on two continents: North America, where he works to understand and solve how disproportionately marginalized populations experience the impact of environmental issues; and Africa, where he studies the effects of health inequities, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, food insecurity and climate change.
Those who nominated Luginaah for a Distinguished University Professor honour described him effusively as “one of the stars of environmental health geography,” and note his staggeringly high number of high-impact articles and book chapters, and his mentorship of colleagues and students.
His book chapters have been used to influence health-care reform in the U.S. and inform decision-making about the risks and impact of air pollution in North America. Born in Ghana, Luginaah continues to contribute to important scholarship in Africa, where he is proud to have brought students to a deeper understanding of local and international issues and solutions. “When you go there, you are hooked. You can’t get out if you have a good heart,” he said.
His research has generated more than $10 million in grant funding as a principal or co-principal investigator, and he has participated in a further $24 million in funded research from a range of national and international agencies. He has also been a willing resource for faculty members looking to gain additional support for their work, including having formed a faculty scholarship committee to support each other’s grant applications.
He is co-director of Western’s Centre for Climate Change, Sustainable Livelihoods and Health, and helped shape Western’s future as a member of the university’s strategic planning steering committee.
In all of his achievements, though, mentorship is the motivation that motivates him every day. He has promoted the training of women and racialized people from underrepresented groups around the world: 30 of his graduate students have been female, and his trainees represent 12 different countries from four continents. His undergraduate courses are always full and student evaluations have been consistently glowing.
“I had really, really solid mentors,” he said, and that in turn inspired an ever-expanding positive cycle of mentorship: several of his graduate students have gone on to become university professors who are teaching and leading the next generations of students and scholars around the world.
“The publications, yes, I have quite a few. But if you ask me what makes me happiest, it is that I’ve mentored some pretty high-flyers. That is the thing I cherish most,” he said.
Faculty Scholars in 2022 are professors:
Kirsty Robertson, visual arts, Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Charles Stocking, classical studies, Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Ying Zheng, chemical and biochemical engineering, Faculty of Engineering
Wenxing Zhou, civil and environmental engineering, Faculty of Engineering
Susan Hunter, physical therapy, Faculty of Health Studies
Treena Orchard, health studies, Faculty of Health Sciences
Romayne Smith Fullerton, Faculty of Information and Media Studies
Deishin Lee, operations management and sustainability, Ivey Business School
Hubert Pun, management science, Ivey Business School
Sharon Wei, viola, Faculty of Music
Nathalie Berube, anatomy and cell biology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Jimmy Dikeakos, microbiology and immunology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Dan Hardy, obstetrics and gynecology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Jamie Nöel, chemistry, Faculty of Science
Lindi Wahl, applied mathematics, Faculty of Science
Kate Choi, sociology, Faculty of Social Science
Ryan Stevenson, psychology and Brain and Mind Institute, Faculty of Social Science