Early in his career in physics, Martin Grant thought he had it all figured out.
“When I started, I said to myself ‘well, this is good. Nobody’s going to tell me what to do,” said Grant, Emeritus James McGill Professor and former Dean of the Faculty of Science. “I’ve got the world’s greatest postdoc – me – and I’ll be able to do all the projects that I want to do pretty much by myself.”
“But I quickly realized that if I followed that route, I would be doing a disservice to the students.”
Grant knew that, while he could have done the work himself, students would benefit greatly if they were involved in the hands-on research.
“The downside to that approach is that it’s not all about you anymore,” he said. “The upside is you give students an opportunity to really learn.
“The people I look up to are the people who embrace this idea of the role model, and who are willing to get satisfaction out of other people’s successes and other people’s accomplishments. I hope I’ve lived up to that.”
Grant’s students and colleagues would tell you that he has more than lived up to those aspirations – and now it is official. Earlier today, he was awarded 2023 Morty Yalovsky Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Academic Leadership as part of the morning Fall Convocation ceremony at Place des Arts.
“Professor Grant has been at McGill University for over 35 years as a leading researcher, a renowned mentor, and an influential, devoted, and respected administrator,” Provost Christopher Manfredi told the audience in Salle Wilfred Pelletier. “Professor Grant has had a wide-reaching and profound impact on McGill and is the embodiment of the spirit of this award.”
“Martin is a human Swiss army knife,” says Lennox, Dean of the Faculty of Science. “He’s excelled as a teacher, a researcher, and an administrator. At McGill, we have lots of people who are amazing at one or two of those, but the three together, that’s really hard to do.”
“It’s only when you nominate someone for an award like this that you start saying ‘my goodness, he did that too?’ Martin’s fingerprints are on many important initiatives that have benefitted the Faculty of Science and the University as a whole.”
Grant approaches the attention and accolades in typical fashion – with his legendary dry wit. “It all started in a 50-watt radio station in Charlottetown, P.E.I.,” he deadpans.
Grant came to McGill in 1986, as an assistant professor, becoming a full professor in less than 10 years. As Chair of the Department of Physics from 2002 to 2005, Grant was the driving force behind a period an academic renewal in the Faculty, resulting in the hiring of more than 10 professors in just three years. Thanks to Grant’s belief in strategic cluster hiring, these new hires laid the foundation of the now world-renowned astrophysics group.
When Grant became Dean of the Faculty of Science in 2005, he expanded his vision of academic renewal. Over his 10-year tenure as Dean, the Faculty’s professoriate enjoyed unparalleled growth.
Grant spearheaded the creation of the Fessenden Professorship in Science Innovation award program. The $90,000 award recognizes faculty members who have made a discovery that has significant commercialization potential.
“Martin recognized that there was a significant gap in the research funding system between the discovery and knowledge translation phase in research,” says Lennox. “He knew the great talent we had in Faculty of Science, but a lot of great ideas withered because of a lack of support to bring them to the next level.
“It was rocket fuel,” says Lennox of the Fessenden Professorships. “Of the first 20 projects that got one of these awards, nine became startup companies – nine! That kind of success rate is unheard of.”
Lennox points out that the Fessenden success has now been applied to almost identical programs within large research consortia at McGill including Healthy Brains, Healthy Lives; MI4; the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative.
Ground-breaking undergraduate research opportunities
Grant was one of the prime movers in the establishment of the Faculty of Science’s groundbreaking undergraduate research program. At the time, most science students had to wait until their postgraduate work before taking part in hands-on research.
“I thought the upside of McGill was the quality of the students, especially the undergraduate students – and I still think it,” says Grant. “Pound for pound they are as good as the students at Harvard, at Oxford, at Toronto, at Stanford. They’re as good as the students everywhere.
“As a professor, you can throw anything at them, and they’ll do it. So, if they are that good, why aren’t we including them in our research?”
Under Grant’s leadership, the Faculty established the Undergraduate Research Office and endowed awards that paid undergraduates to work with researchers – all but unheard of at the time.
Grant needed to ensure buy-in from the faculty, especially among the new hires who would be working with undergraduates for many years to come. “I told the department chairs that for tenure of all these new people, I was going to look at their involvement with undergraduate research, along with everything else.
“It worked in a lot of interesting ways, actually,” he says. “The students got letters of reference to be able to apply for other opportunities, and they had research credits on their transcript. And the profs took pride in working with these undergrads and integrating them into their groups.”
Today, the Faculty of Science hands out 105 Summer Undergraduate Research Awards, which pays students more than they would make in most summer jobs.
“It’s not bottle washing or plating an agar plates. It’s real research beside a professor, beside a post doc, beside a PhD student,” says Lennox. “This is our trophy program. It’s a reason for an undergraduate to come to McGill with having that type of opportunity.”
The human touch
One of the intangible components to Grant’s success is his human touch. Lennox calls him a “small ‘a’ administrator” who has always encouraged collegiality as much as excellence.
Lennox says Grant is particularly good working with philanthropists – the very people who supported – and still support – the various initiatives that changed the face of the Faculty of Science and, by extension, McGill.
“He developed really strong relationships through his natural charisma and his means of speaking with people,” says Lennox. “He’s a very effective person and really quite modest about it. There’s never any self promotion. He’s always let results speak for themselves.”
Asked about results, Grant attributes this success as much to the people he has worked with in the Faculty of Science, the associate deans and support staff in Dawson Hall, and all the others in the Faculty “who all worked to establish a culture of collegiality and respect for achievement.”