The lasting legacy of Hans Baer
By Kyle Bournes
Dr. Hans Helmut Baer will always be remembered by his fellow researchers, and those close to him, as a very quiet and modest man. However, his contributions to scientific research and the impact he had on the lives of international students demonstrate that he had a passion for discovery and for helping others.
In the early 1960s, Baer was establishing himself as a rising young star in carbohydrate chemistry in his native Germany. In 1961, he was recruited to become an assistant professor at what was then the growing School of Pure and Applied Science at the University of Ottawa.
The School was on the cusp of gaining Faculty status and needed more science professors to meet demand and ensure the quality of its programs. Baer would go on to a distinguished career and earn worldwide acclaim for his work on oligosaccharides (derived from human breast milk) and nitro carbohydrates (used in antibiotic research). By 1975, he had received the top recognition in his field: the Claude S. Hudson Award for Carbohydrate Chemistry awarded by the American Chemical Society.
In addition to generating outstanding research, Hans Baer changed the lives of his students, perhaps because, like many of his international students, Baer had left his home country at a young age, fueled by a sense of adventure and ambition. He was always eager to guide young international chemistry students to help them reach their academic and research goals. Much like him, these international students came to uOttawa with a strong work ethic and a resiliency that allowed them to overcome challenges.
The first opportunity that Baer had to “pay-it-forward” came the year after he had joined uOttawa’s professorial ranks. In 1962, a young student from Taiwan, Ruey Yu, began his PhD studies under Baer. Yu was the first international graduate student that Baer would supervise during a career that would span over three decades. When Yu arrived, he was a penniless international student who had overcome famine as a child and many other challenges. At the time, there were no doctoral study opportunities in Taiwan. Acting on the advice of a schoolmate who would eventually land a scholarship at McGill University, Yu applied to graduate school at the University of Ottawa.
Baer took Yu under his wing, not only as a professor, but also as a caring mentor. He helped Yu bring his wife and daughter to Canada. He ensured Yu’s smooth transition into Canadian society by inviting him to social gatherings, introducing him to new people, and taking time to share experiences in the country that was a new home for them both. In three short years, Baer’s first international graduate student had earned his PhD and soon afterwards, he secured a fellowship with the Biosciences Division of Canada’s National Research Council.
After five years in Canada, Yu left to pursue career opportunities south of the border, but he would never forget Hans Baer’s influence on his life. Yu continued his research in chemistry, leading to discoveries that revolutionized the skincare industry. He and his research colleague, Dr. Eugene J. Van Scott, discovered that alpha-hydroxyacids (AHAs) are extremely beneficial to human skin. He and Dr. Van Scott went on to found the NeoStrata skin care company.
Last November, Hans Helmut Baer passed away at the age of 88, more than five decades after he first met Ruey Yu. Baer led an incredible life mentoring young students with aspirations to become scientists, doctors and nurses. He will always be remembered by the many students that he taught and supervised. He was certainly remembered by his first international graduate student from Taiwan.
Upon hearing the news that Dr. Baer had passed away, Dr. Ruey Yu decided to do something to honour his PhD supervisor. He decided to “pay-it-forward” by making a generous gift to the Faculty of Science to create the Professor Hans Helmut Baer International Student Scholarship in Chemistry. This scholarship will be awarded to qualifying graduate students in perpetuity.
The first recipient of the award is Mehdi Mostajeran. Like Baer and Yu before him, Mostajeran has taken a leap of faith and left his loved ones in Iran to pursue his PhD. He is an outstanding student who comes from the Isfahan University of Technology, the most prestigious university in Iran. He is now in the fourth year of his PhD, studying under world-renowned green catalysis researcher Dr. R. Tom Baker. His research looks to find ways to use hydrogen gas as a potential fuel source.
It is clear that thanks to his modest and caring nature, Dr. Hans Baer will be fondly remembered as a pioneer of internationalization at uOttawa. He helped create a culture of inclusion for uOttawa students from abroad that is central to the University’s values today. Currently, there are nearly 4,000 international students on campus, including over 300 doctoral students. We hope that each of them will meet their own version of Hans Baer to help them while they are studying at uOttawa.
Did you know Dr. Baer or any other uOttawa professor or staff member who has had a positive impact on your life? We would love to hear from you. Please contact the Faculty of Science Alumni Relations Officer, Kyle Bournes, at kbournes@uOttawa.ca.
In 1961, uOttawa recruited Dr Hans Baer to become an assistant professor.