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New dean of science will emphasize ‘outward-facing’ approach

Author: Tim Jaques

Posted on May 30, 2024

Category: UNB Fredericton

Dr. Sanjeev Seahra

The incoming dean of the faculty of science at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) plans to foster outside collaborations while building on the faculty’s numerous existing strengths in fundamental science.

Dr. Sanjeev Seahra will step into the role on July 1 for a five-year term, replacing acting dean Dr. P.T. Jayachandran.

Seahra has been a faculty member in the department of mathematics and statistics at UNB’s Fredericton campus since 2010 where he is currently a professor and the department chair.

“I love talking with people from outside the university to really get an understanding of the problems that they are interested in, and then massaging those problems into a form where scientific researchers can make a meaningful contribution,” he said.

“Fostering collaborations with outside groups has been, and will continue to be, one of my main priorities, and it is something I really enjoy doing.”

Seahra has extensive experience with collaborative action through the Atlantic Association for Research in the Mathematical Sciences (AARMS), of which he remains the director until June 30.

“The job of AARMS director is to promote and support mathematical science research and outreach in Atlantic Canada. Many of the recent activities and projects that have led me to the dean of science role have been associated with AARMS,” he said.

One of these was an initiative promoting new research collaborations between academics and industry via two-week industrial problem-solving workshops.

Other projects have included large-scale public outreach activities. In 2018 and 2019, AARMS hosted events where around 500 Girl Guides were brought to the UNB and Dalhousie campuses for a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) event called All SySTEMs Go.

“It was a great opportunity to promote women in science. I feel that organizing AARMS activities such as All SySTEMs Go and industrial problem-solving workshops have provided me with several transferable skills for the dean of science role,” Seahra said.

Seahra also has been involved with COVID modelling.

“In 2020, AARMS and Canada’s other math institutes assisted in organizing research to help with the public health response. As part of these efforts, AARMS participated in a grant proposal to Canadian Institutes of Health Research to support mathematical modelling of COVID and got that funding.”

“In the process of obtaining that COVID grant, I spoke with a number of people both inside and outside of academia about the mathematics behind infectious diseases. That is something I was always interested in, even though it was not my research area.”

He then reached out to the New Brunswick Department of Health.

“When COVID started picking up in New Brunswick, there was a pressing need for forecasting and modelling. I offered up my services to public health officials because I had relevant expertise from my other research, and I had time to do it.”

He later worked with PEI, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories as well.

“COVID was difficult to model, because the arrival of each new variant would fundamentally change the epidemiological landscape. It was almost like a new disease showed up several times a year.”

“Despite this challenge, I was ultimately pretty proud of some of the results that we could put out, especially for short term forecasting.”

He said predicting the result of measures the government would take in response to the forecasts was “initially pretty difficult,” but they got better at it when they had more data with which to work.

Seahra says the faculty of science does excellent research and “science for science’s sake,” but he also wants to strengthen partnerships and be “outward-facing” by drawing on his experience at AARMS.

“The early part of my own career was focused on fundamental science, such as gravitational waves, cosmology and quantum gravity,” said Seahra, whose doctorate is in physics and who has used mathematics to investigate black holes and whether they could reveal if the universe has extra dimensions.

“But I have recently become more engaged in a parallel research program that is more connected to everyday life and society. I think that there is ample space for researchers in the faculty to do both,” he said.

“I would love to see science fully engaged with new outward-facing activities currently under development at UNB. We have great institutes that are coming online, like the Research Institute in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. This is a perfect venue for us to start talking with more people from outside the university about collaborations in the machine-learning and data science space.”

Seahra said the new proposed UNB institute of population health is another area where the faculty of science can make a difference.

“I was intrigued to hear that Dr. Jennifer Russell is going to be heading up that institute. I think there is a lot of scope for various units in the faculty of science to participate. I want to make sure science stays in the conversation as these new initiatives come in at UNB,” he said.

Part of his outreach will be toward students before they reach university.

“It is really helpful to bring people from outside the three urban centres in New Brunswick onto the university campus to see what it is like, participate in science, see labs, talk to researchers, and get a chance to envision themselves in those roles,” he said.

“In addition, our first-year experience is really important and can always be improved. It requires the continuation of the great communication between the instructors of our large first-year courses, advisors and others to make sure things are properly coordinated,” he said.

He would like to focus on increasing the participation of communities traditionally underrepresented in science, and once attracted, retain them.

“Losing people along the way, especially disproportionately from underrepresented groups, is a tricky problem that needs to be addressed,” Seahra said.

“I am interested in establishing more touchpoints to keep track of members of underrepresented groups who are here already and to make sure they are supported. And if they leave, I want to try to understand why they leave, and then determine if those driving factors can be mitigated to ensure that future students make it to the finish line.”