Mona Nemer: an advocate for research

Posted on Tuesday, June 20, 2017

By Monique Roy-Sole

After 11 fruitful years as vice-president, research, Mona Nemer ends her term on June 30. She is only the second person in the history of the University of Ottawa to hold this position. Her many achievements include the Advanced Research Complex, the future STEM complex, interdisciplinary research centres such as the Brain and Mind Research Institute and the Institute for Science, Society and Policy, the promotion of undergraduate research and the relaunch of University of Ottawa Press. As she prepares to leave, Mona Nemer spoke to the Gazette.

You are an accomplished researcher, a key senior manager at the University and also a model for women in research. Were you yourself inspired by someone along your career path?

First, my mother, whom I greatly admired. She was a schoolteacher, so she cared about education. After that, I was inspired by a colleague, a great French researcher, Nicole Le Douarin. I realized with her that you could both do serious science and have a family, have children, that you don’t have to choose one option or the other. That was really a turning point for me.

You became vice-president in 2006. In the past 11 years, has the research world changed a lot?

It certainly has become more and more competitive. In Canada, for example, especially since 2000, we have seen the advent of many means for universities to position themselves on the world stage in terms of research. Furthermore, the world around us has also changed. With the emphasis on research and innovation in the BRIC countries and very large investments in Europe, research has become more competitive in all aspects, be it recruiting the best talent or publishing research in the best journals.

Among your achievements as vice-president, which are most satisfying for you?  

What has pleased me the most is having been able to contribute to a change of culture regarding research at the University. My predecessor, Howard Alper, as well as the president who recruited me, Gilles Patry, had already begun a shift towards research at the University of Ottawa. But we had to work very hard to make everyone understand the importance of research as a main element of the University’s mission.

I’m very proud that we’ve been able over the years to enhance infrastructure for research. In particular, we’ve been able to build new purpose-built research infrastructure that is based on theme and not on departments. I’m thinking of the ARC building, where we really brought together different departments and faculties into one place based on the theme and the complementarity of the research. That was the first time in the history of the University of Ottawa that that was done and it opened the way for the STEM building.

What will you miss the most as vice-president, research?

I will miss the most the people with whom I work. I think that over the years we have developed a great team in the research sector. Everybody works very hard, everybody’s really happy to work with each other.

Can you tell us about your plans for the future? Will you have more time for leisure activities?

I’ve rarely ever planned my future. In life, things sort of happened and I just jumped in. One thing is for sure — I have a lab, I have students and my research projects are ongoing. I’m certainly going back to doing science. It’s a great privilege to be doing research and interacting with students. After that, if there are other opportunities and if I can contribute to the development of research and research institutions, we’ll see then.

For the past 11 years, science has been my leisure activity. Science will certainly remain my hobby, but I’m looking forward to being able to do more gardening and hiking, some more sports, and spending weekends with family and friends.

What kind of advice would you give to the next vice-president, research?

I would say make sure to control your agenda. Don’t let others control it for you, you’re going to have pulls and pushes from all directions. Stay focused on the things that you determine are the right things to do. Don’t try to please everyone because it never works and it only serves to distract you from your main focus. Other than that, just enjoy the job.

PhD student Jamie Whitcomb and Mona Nemer in the Molecular Genetics and Cardiac Regeneration Laboratory at the University of Ottawa. Photos: Dave Weatherall

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