Exceptional staff, teachers receive Principal’s Awards

Say the words “Fall Convocation” and most people will conjure up an image of degrees being handed out – either to happy graduating students or distinguished honorary doctorates recipients. But at last week’s ceremonies, the University also took the time to celebrate the dedication of some teachers and staff members.
From left to right: Allan Oliver, Donna Wilkinson, Tony Vaccaro, Geneviève Leroux and Anthony Howell received their respective Principal’s Award for Administrative and Support Staff at Fall Convocation. / Photo: Adam Scotti

By Neale McDevitt

Say the words “Fall Convocation” and most people will conjure up an image of degrees being handed out – either to happy graduating students or distinguished honorary doctorates recipients. But at last week’s ceremonies, the University also took the time to celebrate the dedication of some teachers and staff members.

The Principal’s Awards for Administrative and Support Staff acknowledge the exceptional efforts of McGill employees. This year five individual awards were handed out in four categories: one each in the Clerical, Technical and Library Assistants, and Trades and Services categories and two in the Managers and Professionals category. A Team Projects award was also given.

The Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching, established in 2000 to recognize teachers and their importance to the academic experience of students at McGill, was awarded to one recipient in each of four categories: Faculty Lecturer, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Full Professor.

The University also honoured professor Rhonda Amsel, who was presented with the McGill University Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning.

Staff Awards

Allan Oliver – Trades and Services category

When Allan Oliver heard the Reporter was commissioning a photograph of all the winners of the Principal’s Awards for Administrative and Support Staff instead of five individual ones, he reacted in typical fashion. “I think that’s an excellent idea,” said the Lead-Hand Control Technician for the maintenance of the Building Automation System. “It’s all about getting together with other people who share the same passion for their work.”

And Oliver has been bringing that same passion to McGill for some 37 years now as one of the people who keeps McGill’s complex heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems up and running. “More than anything, I love helping people.”

Anthony Howell – Technical category

Anthony Howell admits he likes the repetitive nature of his job. A Curatorial Technician at the Redpath Museum, Howell’s days mostly revolve around the maintenance of the Museum’s largest collection – the zoological collection.

“There is a lot of ritual and repetition, which is excellent, because you know what your days are going to be like,” says Howell.

But he’s also the first to admit it’s those unexpected moments – like last year’s “out of the blue” acquisition of some 72 stuffed and mounted African animals from a private collector – that makes him appreciate his job. “You wait for moments like that to happen and when they do it’s just so pleasantly overwhelming. It makes me happy to be here rather than anywhere else,” says Howell.

Donna Wilkinson – Clerical category

In 1990, Donna Wilkinson, closed her eyes and took a leap of faith. Looking to start a new career, she quit her full-time job at a trust company to take a temporary position at McGill replacing someone on maternity leave.

Her bravery was rewarded, as Wilkinson was soon hired fulltime. She hasn’t looked back since.

While Wilkinson spends much of her time overseeing the finances for her unit, her favourite part of the job is coordinating the Distinguished Educator Seminar Series. “If I was in my office doing finances all the time, it would be tough,” she says. “But I also get to work with professors and deal with the public a lot. And that’s the part I love most.”

Tony Vaccaro – Managers and Professionals category

He’s seen floods, he’s seen fires, and he battened down the hatches – just in case – for Hurricane Sandy. If McGill was suddenly hit by a plague of locusts, Tony Vaccaro wouldn’t even flinch.

As one of four Sector operations supervisors for the downtown campus, Vaccaro is in charge of making sure the University’s day-to-day operations run as smoothly as possible, be it fixing leaky faucets or getting a unit up and running after a flood.

“Our goal is to try to fix as much as possible as discreetly as possible, without anyone even seeing that we’re there,” says the 23-year McGill veteran.

Geneviève Leroux (Managers and Professionals category)

As Senior Disability Management Advisor, Geneviève Leroux usually works with staff during very trying times, after they have suffered some sort of physical trauma. “Of course you need to empathize with what the employees is going through,” she says, “but you also need to be proactive and very creative when it comes to problem resolution. Everyone’s goal is to get the employees back in a safe and timely manner.”

One thing Leroux does is to contact the employee on a regular basis during their disability leave or to encourage the employee’s supervisor to do the same. “It sounds like a small thing but we hear from employees all the time who say that it made all the difference to them that people called to ask how they were doing.”

Office for Students with Disabilities – Team category

It has been a busy year for the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). The Office reframed its view of disability to employ usability, equity, inclusion, sustainability and social justice as its guiding principles. On top of that, the team developed a major outreach campaign that included the launch of McGill Disabilities Awareness Week. The volume of service users rose from 840 to 1,156 students in just one academic year.

“Everyone is ecstatic,” says Frederic Fovet, Director, OSD. “It validates all the hard work we have carried out in the last academic year promoting more progressive views on disabilities.”

Other nominees

Managers and professionals

Debbie Carlone, Financial Administrator, Faculty of Law

Vittoria Catania, Student Affairs Administrator, Faculty of Medicine (Anatomy and Cell Biology)

Bruna Ceccolini, Assistant to the Director of Libraries, McGill Library (Dean’s Office)

Maureen Dowd, Administrative Assistant, Faculty of Medicine (Internal Medicine Postgraduate Medical education Teaching

Ernie Kinney. Facilitator, Human resources (Organizational Development)

Diane Koziol, Administrative Officer, Faculty of Science (Dept. of Physics)

Carole Lemieux, Administrator, Rural Areas; Medical Education

Susanne Major, DAR Associate, Desautels Faculty of Management (Development and Alumni Relations)

Heather Mole, Access Services Advisor, Office for Students with Disabilities

Donald Nycklass, Senior Project manager, University Services (Facilities Operations & Development)

Lauren Penney, Enrolment Manager, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Karen Rasinger, Administrative and Communications Officer, Pension Administration

Sani Sulu, Network Administrator, IT Customer Services

Dianne Tessier; Manager, Gift Records; Development and Alumni Relations (Donation and Record Services)


Madeleine Arkilanian, Administrative Coordinator, Faculty of Medicine (Animal Care Facility)

Marlene Gilhooly,  Administrative Coordinator, Faculty of Medicine (Biochemistry)

Chantal Grignon, Undergraduate Student Affairs Coordinator, Faculty of Medicine (Pharmacology and Therapeutics)

Rita Piccioni, Senior Administrative and Student Affairs Coordinator, Faculty of Medicine (Surgery)

Renée Walker, Administrative Coordinator, Human Resources (Total Compensation)

Technical and Library Assistants

Benoit Chambaron, Animal Health Technician, MNI (Animal Care Facility)

Julie Coursol, Animal Health Technician, Faculty of Medicine (Neurology and Neurosurgery)

Richard Talbot, Electronics Coordinator, Faculty of Science (Dept. of Physics)

Trades and Services

Victor Black, Electrician, Operation Electrician South-East

Daniel Capstick, Carpenter, Facilities Operations

Nicolas Khoueiri, Building Service Person C, Desautels Faculty of Management

Michel Massé, Cleaner, Facilities Management (Macdonald Campus)

Team Projects

Energy Specialists Investigation Team, Facilities Operations and Development

IT/Enrolment Services Team, IT Services and Enrolment Services

Darwin Software Implementation Team, Animal Compliance Office


Teaching Awards

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and Provost Anthony Masi present Prof. Rhonda Amsel with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning. / Photo: Adam Scotti

Rhonda Amsel – Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning

Say “stats class” and many people’s eyes naturally begin to glaze over. But chances are they never had Rhonda Amsel as their teacher.

“I try to make the classroom a ‘safe’ place for taking risks,” says the professor in the Dept. of Psychology of the large undergraduate statistics classes she teaches. “The class is conversational, in spite of its size, and I want students to feel free to ask questions and contribute to the discussion. The class atmosphere is friendly … and it’s all very non-judgemental and occasionally a bit wild and silly – not at all what you’d expect in a statistics course.

“I try to show them how useful the subject can be and how their preconception of stats as ‘dry as dust’ is a myth,” says Amsel. “When they succeed at a statistics course, it can help them take up the next challenge – whatever it is – with more enthusiasm.”

Jeffrey Bergthorson – Assistant Professor category

When asked what the most rewarding part of his job is, Jefferey Bergthorson paraphrases Galileo. “You can’t teach anyone anything,” he says, “You can only help them discover it in themselves.”

A professor in the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Bergthorson tells the story of one particular student who struggled with basic concepts during the first weeks of his Thermodynamics 1 course. “She is now a Ph.D. student in a top combustion laboratory,” he says, “and her growth throughout the course and throughout her program of study are a great example of the impact that we, as teachers, are making on individuals and on global society.”

Laura Nilson – Associate Professor category

“What I love about science is the clever way that nature always seems to work,” says Laura Nilson, a professor in the Department of Biology, “and the elegance and creativity behind the scientific method that lets us figure it all out.”

Nilson says she tends to tell what she calls “the research ‘story’ behind the concepts we are discussing, so that they understand how we know what we know.”

“This way, I can stress research, reasoning and problem-solving, and introduce my students to the idea that scientific knowledge is often not absolute but instead based on a collection of evidence that must be considered critically,” she says.”

Paul Clarke – Full Professor

Paul Clarke is probably the funniest neuropsychopharmacology and behavioural neuroscience researcher in the world.

Ask him what makes a good teacher and Clarke supplies you with a series of guidelines that are in turn funny (“Boredom is the enemy of learning; students should remain awake for the full 50 minutes, whenever possible,” and “It helps if you can forget the course material from year to year, that way it’s fresh for everyone”), practical (“a key ingredient is preparation, and lots of it; a lecture has to be choreographed,” and “admit ignorance”) and, finally, profound (“Striving to nurture virtues – that is absolutely what teaching is about.”)

Kenneth MacKenzie, winner in the Faculty Lecturer category, was not available for comment.