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Meet Deborah Buszard
Interim President and Vice-Chancellor, UBC
Deborah Buszard is a plant scientist who specializes in apples and strawberries. Today she is the interim president of UBC. I met Deborah in 2017 during my first term on the UBC Board of Governors when she was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UBC-O (where she served from 2012-2020). We met via zoom in early May 2023 to talk about the choices in her career that led her to the leadership of one of Canada’s leading research universities.
Disclosure: Since March 2023 I have been an elected member of UBC’s Board of Governors and in this capacity have the opportunity to meet with Deborah Buszard on a regular basis. As a consequence I endeavoured to focus this conversation on matters external to the businesses of the Board.
Origins of a plant scientist
“Deborah, thank you very much for agreeing to do an interview with me this morning for A Campus Resident. I know you're a plant scientist by vocation, if you don't mind me asking, what brought you to that? I mean, you didn't wake up one morning as a kid and say, ‘I want to be a plant scientist,’ did you?”
No, I didn't. But I will say I always enjoyed being outdoors in the garden. My mother was a bit of a gardener. Not much of one, I will say, but just being outside and with plants.
I was in high school, I guess, and I really was not very much interested in anything. I was a pretty mediocre student, but there was a little patch of garden that some friends and I were allowed to [take care of]. So we started to grow flowers and things. As I say, I was not an excellent student in high school, but I loved botany and the study of plants in the biology program. Not so interested in cutting up the earthworms and the rats, which was part of the curriculum. But the plant stuff I loved. I was just fascinated.
That led me to an undergraduate degree in Horticulture. In Horticulture, there is a whole industry of growing food and managing parks and landscaping, and I was very practical.
I could see there was work, and I thought, I can be working with plants. I loved it, and I was so lucky to find a co-op undergrad program. As part of that, I got to work three different industrial placements training periods, as part of the degree. I actually got to work in agriculture. That was how it all began. I just love being outside. Plants are much easier than people.
“My late mother,” I said, “would tell a story of when she was a young woman -this would have been in the late 40s, early 50s- looking for a career she came out to UBC and went to one of the horticultural offices on campus. The person she met sized her up and down, looked at her and he said ‘you're way too weak to be able to do this. You best go become a teacher.’ So she became a teacher.”
Deborah noted that born as she was in the 1950s she was part of a generation for which doors began to open up for women.
“Certainly I felt lucky to be allowed to do things, lucky to be allowed to go to university, lucky to join things, because they hadn't let women in before. There were two women in my undergraduate program. When I got my first job, which was at McGill University as an assistant professor, I was the second woman ever hired in the department.”
“We were lucky to have the doors opened. And then, of course, we spent, I spent, a lot of my career trying to hold my elbows on the doors.”
A career in Canada
I asked Deborah how came to take her first academic appointment at McGill, in Canada when she was born and trained in the UK.
“This is a story,” Deborah said, “about the advantage of doing co-op. So in my undergrad co-op program, my third co-op, I was working for a farmers cooperative, fruit growers, and they were working in partnership with people from the University of London who were working on some ways of improving yield. Making the plants more productive. I was assigned to go and be like an assistant with them on the research on farms. I got trained to collect data during the season. So this was my undergrad program. At that point I thought after my undergrad that I would just take a job. In fact, I'd been looking for jobs, and there was one which was to help someone rebuild their garden on a Greek island. I thought, pretty darn good. But I got a call from the people I'd been working with, from the University of London, and they had a funded PhD program, and they were looking for someone to come and work with them and do more research, actually, very much the equivalent of MITACs. This was something in partnership with industry, and it was in partnership with a company called ICI, which was a big agrochemical manufacturing company.”
“They said, 'Would you like to come and do a PhD?' I thought, I'd never thought of that. I went and did the research. Every fall, I would go and use the laboratories at ICI because they had much better labs than we did, much better technical support and great chemists. I was able to do all the plant analysis I needed, including looking at analyzing proteins and DNA and RNA in apple flowers, which is not easy, and then doing the electron microscopy. So I was getting a lot of experience that would not probably have been available to me so easily at the university. One day when I was coming to the end of writing up my work, there was a notice pinned up in the laboratory at the university, and it was McGill University looking for an assistant professor. And the paragraph describing what expertise they wanted in horticulture was pretty much exactly what I'd been working on.”
“It was totally out of the blue. Someone pointed it out to me on the notice board and I was like, wow, there's actually a job. This has been fun, but there's actually a job. I applied. My professor thought I was crazy. They want someone with experience, but they offered me the job and the rest is a long career.”
“My dad always likes to say that you don't catch fish with the net on your deck. I always think of this because one of my supervisors said to me, because I hadn't finished my PhD at the time I applied to UBC, they basically said to me ‘that's career suicide to apply before you finish.’ I took a deep breath and applied anyway, and here I am.”
“Yes,” Deborah said. “And you maybe had somewhat the same experience I did. So of course they offered me the job. I interviewed in June. They wanted me to start in January.”
“January in Montreal is not June in Montreal. I arrived, I had not finished my PhD. I was sure I would write it up in the next few months.”
“It took me two years. It was a brutal two years. It does take time. And I will confess I accidentally had a baby in the middle of all of that. But you and I both, we lived to tell the tale. It's been worth it, right?”
Indeed it has been worth it!
“You moved through the ranks at McGill,” I said, “to become the Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, yes?”
“I was very lucky to be in a department full of incredibly productive and high impact researchers. I worked on fruit trees and strawberries. None of which will ever get you to be the highest funded researcher on the planet. But I was doing it because I enjoyed it.”
“I was very happy, but it turned out that I was very interested in how our curriculum didn't seem to be keeping up with the changing times.”
“We decided in our department that we would try to reimagine our degree, and somehow that got me to serve on the curriculum committee for the faculty and then for the Senate. I began to have a bit of a better idea about how the university ran. But I was doing it because we knew we needed to change the way we were teaching students. That was what was also interesting to me, like that connection between us and the students and the industry and their careers. The fact that we needed to be preparing them for where the industry was going, not where it was 20 years ago.”
“So what pulled you into the administrative aspect,” I said, “was this interest in how the curriculum was designed. So you start with a very practical task about how do we keep up to date the curriculum. Is it fair to say that it led to moving into administration?”
“Yes. I started within plant science. We were thinking about our program and where our students were going and the changing demand. Once upon a time, there were government paid advisors, like in Canada they would be Ag Canada, they were all over the place advising farmers. That was the world I started in. Then, of course, all that disappeared and it went online. It was privatized. It’s very different today for agriculture than it was.”
“Once I started to think about that, I started to think it's the whole faculty that needs to be doing this. All of our disciplines are, in a faculty of agriculture anyway, related to some kind of health industry, other kinds of activities and professions. So we needed to be relevant. And, of course, places that don't stay relevant shrink and disappear.”
“We did a few things, while I was [at McGill] in terms of recognizing that the big areas of importance were going to be environment and sustainability, although that wasn't a word that was being widely used until the late 90s. But environment, sustainability, and also the emergence of biosciences, biotech, and biopharma. In our faculty on my campus, our campus was separate from the downtown McGill campus, but there we had an institute of parasitology and biotech in terms of developing vaccines and these types of things was becoming really important and it was also important in terms of plant breeding and animals. And you may remember the fuss about GMOs, right?”
“So there was so much happening in the science and the social side that it was a very interesting time to be thinking about while I was first the Associate Dean academic, and then I became the dean. But our field was rapidly changing. The kinds of people we were hiring were changing and the partnerships we were going to be having with National Research Council, pharmaceutical companies around developing vaccines and treatments for things like malaria and so on. So it was very exciting to see the science and the social issues changing and the opportunities for our graduates changing. So while I was dean, one of the things we realized well, actually we only realized it because the Provost told us that was when I was I was very new as a dean and I was invited to a meeting in the Provost office with the Dean of Science. And our Provost wanted to tell us that he recognized that we had environment in the science faculty. And I was dean of a faculty that by then was called Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He said, ‘Listen, you both got a stake in this. It's really big and important to the university. You must collaborate.’”
“I was very new. The Dean of Science was a little bit more mature and wiser than I was. And we got into an argument about whose campus this school should be on.”
“The Provost sent us outside to sort it out. So we continued to work on it for a couple of years and it took a while. And we brought in the Faculty of Arts and Law eventually, and other faculties, but we started with the three, and we created the McGill School of Environment, which was an eye opener to bring together all the firepower we had in those three faculties around that. And the trick was to make it work so that no one felt that their lunch was being stolen. Which is the usual problem about turf in universities.”
Life after being a Dean
“My husband and I both finished our administrative terms at McGill. At McGill, it's very clear they don't really want you to come back anytime soon from that. Well, you're welcome to be a professor, but not necessarily to be part of the administration.”
“So we were thinking to ourselves, well, we're just kind of too young to be just cruising. We'll go somewhere else. So we both applied, and my husband got a very nice offer from Dalhousie. They offered me a role. We were very happy to have an opportunity to go somewhere together, somewhere quite different. I was appointed in the biology department.”
“I can tell you that the biology department at Dalhousie is all about the fish. I was one of, I think, two or three plant people in the entire department. But they very kindly took me in. Let me just say so there's a UBC piece of this story where both my husband and I had leaves at the end of our decanal service. I decided that I'd not really studied, I'd studied the science side of plants, but I was aware that UBC at that time offered a certificate in garden design. So I signed up for that.”
“I actually lived in the Acadia student apartments for a while and also for a while at Green College. I did this one year program. It wasn't full time. It was meant for people who were already working. There were some lovely people on the course, mostly sort of mid career, someone who was an architect for the Olympic Village that was being finished. She was taking to do landscape work and so on. But it was super. And I spent a year pretty much wandering around the campus drawing pieces of gardens.”
“So when I went to Dal, I had in my mind that I wanted to teach a course about the use of plants in the built environment, how we use them in planning. And actually, UBC, of course, is a fantastic campus to see that on and how important the planting is and what a difference it makes. You can modify people's behaviour. You can make people feel better. People recover from illness more quickly when they can see plants. There's a whole lot of psychological and physical benefits. So I asked at Dal if I could teach that course. Why? I created a new course, and it was very popular. I had a lot of students from planning and architecture and biology take it. And I decided that I would experiment with a different evaluation because I thought a lot about teaching. While I'd be an associate dean and a dean, I decided this would be a course that was evaluated entirely on drawing.”
“And there's a look of terror, particularly among the biology students who were all hoping to be doctors, of course. And this is a course that's going to be marked entirely on your drawing. And then we worked through it and we taught them how to do architectural drafting and start drawing. And the mark, of course, was graded entirely on your improvement from where you started and how you presented your ideas and your actual concept for designing gardens. I had students do the most wonderful work. So it was a fun course to teach.”
“It was not a required course, so it wasn't going to define whether you were a biologist or a planner. It was an elective. But they learned to work as teams, to develop ideas and then to develop their individual skills so that they could think about and understand physical spaces and then have a concept. And we worked on things like gardens designed for people with autism spectrum disorders, gardens designed for people with Alzheimer's, other sorts of social integrative kind of things. So you had to understand the issue, what you were dealing with, and then be able to present it back. So there were a lot of very useful, developmental, communicative sort of skills that people were developing in the course, as well as coming up with some wonderful wild and crazy garden ideas.”
Back at the helm
“You retired in June 2020 ending almost a decade as the Principal of UBC-O. You were entering, as the French say, Le troisième âge. What is it like to find yourself drawn back to the helm of this large enterprise called UBC? Because I don't think that when you retired you imagined that you would be back running a major university.”
“Absolutely not. No. So I will say, Charles, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to be the principal at UBC-O. What an amazing place, what an amazing idea. And really, I look at it with some kind of personal pride, but much more in awe of what has been created there. And I know that it's the only university that was built as a partnership with the First Nation host community.”
“So I'd felt like I couldn't have imagined having an opportunity like that in my working career. It was amazing. And my husband had retired a couple of years earlier than me. He was the president here at Thompson Rivers, and so we were happily facing this third period. So I retired in June 2020, which was like magic. Like I just switched off Zoom and I wasn't working anymore. And it was a bit weird being just shut in at home and I can remember kind of thinking around about probably the 2 July, oh my goodness, what am I going to do here?”
“But I had a couple of volunteer things that I was involved with and I joined a board which I found to be very interesting. And I had at that time, I'd been asked to chair an expert table for the Council of Canadian Academies to write a report on cultivating diversity.”
“That kept me busy. So I was actually thinking that this third life is just as interesting and diverse as the ones I'd had before. The whole adventure, for me, as I've explained, it was serendipity that took me from one thing to another. I decided that you should never be afraid of letting go of the dock. You have to let go.”
“So I did retire. I retired and became emeritus. My life has gone on to be even more interesting. Then one day, out of the blue, I get a call from Nancy [McKenzie], the board chair, and I will say there had been quite a lot of people wondering who would fill in when President Ono left. People had said, ‘well you know, you could do it.’ I was actually away on holiday with my husband when I got the call. I hadn't really thought about it, but I was very taken by what Martha Piper did when she came back at a very different kind of time, a time when there was a lot of work to be done. I felt, you know I love UBC. It's given me an amazing life for the last decade. And it's important. It's really important how UBC is. I just felt that if people feel I can help, I'll come back and see if I can. So here I am, helping the team.”
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