September 21, 2007 – Edmonton — (borrowed or stolen from the UofA Expressnews
Soft-spoken, unassuming, and a little uncomfortable in the spotlight, Michael Brett doesn’t come across as someone who’s launched countless engineering careers and a world-class research facility.
But he has done that and more. His work as a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alberta is just the foundation of an energetic career that shows no sign of slowing, even after 22 years.
Brett was honoured today as the U of A celebrated its 12th anniversary of teaching and learning excellence Sept. 21.
The celebration, held at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium and led by U of A President Indira Samarasekera, recognized the high standard reached by the university’s faculty and students. Brett was awarded the University Cup for a dynamic career of excellence in teaching and research.
“We are absolutely delighted to award professor Brett the University Cup,” said Samarasekera. “Professor Brett has had a most prolific academic career and his discoveries have made a tremendous impact upon a variety of industry sectors. He is internationally known for his work in electrical and computer engineering and is currently at the forefront of breakthrough research in nanotechnology. The U of A is extremely proud of professor Brett and we feel honoured to celebrate his numerous achievements.”
Brett’s work with thin-film engineering has been recognized around the globe in the form of numerous research titles, publications in 200 scientific journals, creative collaborations with multinational corporations, and a software system that was successfully commercialized and sold to major players such as IBM, Intel and Toshiba.
Despite a towering list of achievements, Brett uses the word ’serendipity’ when describing the start of his career at the U of A.
“I came along at the right time,” he said.
As a newly-minted professor, Brett worked tirelessly to help pioneer the Micromachining and Nanofabrication Facility, an entity that was instrumental in having the cutting-edge National Research Council’s National Institute for Nanotechnology’s constructed on campus. Today Bret is a Senior Research Officer at NINT, a facility that shines in the U of A’s research crown.
“The Nanofab is the core facility that seeded the incredibly high level of materials and nanotechnology research now ongoing at the University of Alberta,” said David Lynch, dean of the Faculty of Engineering. “Professor Brett has made enormous contributions to research, service and teaching.”
Brett’s other titles include an iCORE professorship in Nanoengineered ICT Devices, holder of the Micralyne/NSERC/iCORE Senior Industrial Chair in Thin Film Engineering and the Canada Research Chair in Nanoengineered Thin Films.
Brett’s success also translates to the classroom where, as an enthusiastic director of engineering physics, he transformed the program from a group of 10 students to one with an enrolment that has exceeded 30, with many applicants turned away in some years. Brett has helped his students realize their dreams by lending an ear to those who have come to his door seeking career advice. By helping them focus their choices with questions as simple as where they’d like to live, Brett has steered students to rewarding worldwide posts as university academics, with NASA, Intel and here at home, with research centres like the Cross Cancer Institute.
Brett believes his job doesn’t end when a degree is awarded.
“We should care about students and their careers,” he said. And students, in turn, care about Brett. His computer is filled with ‘where are they now’ photos from grateful grads, and he has received the highest possible rating on teaching evaluations from almost every student, in classes of up to 132 people.
But when asked about his secret to meaningful teaching, Brett deflects the glory onto his students, who are already top-notch, in his view.
“I just go there and deliver the goods. I have a very talented group.”
Brett’s deep respect and patience for his students plays a large part in that success, said Andy van Popta, who has spent eight years as an undergrad and graduate student in Brett’s lab.
“He always keeps the student’s best interests in mind. He makes sure they get to conferences, helps them focus thesis work, creates worthwhile lab projects and provides as much or as little leadership as a person needs.”
Brett has a gift for making each student feel special. In this case, Brett met van Popta’s parents, gave van Popta’s younger brother some work experience in the lab, even attended van Popta’s wedding.
“He knows my whole family.”
It instills self-confidence and the idea that any goal is reachable, van Popta said
“I can only imagine if the supervisor never showed interest in anyone as an individual – it would be hard to deal with.”
Looking to the future, Brett still has a dream of his own – to reward his many research funders by creating a product that is a commercial hit within Alberta. “There’s been a lot invested in my work, and I want to pay back some of that investment.”
It could be in the form of just about anything in a lab that has no boundaries.
As for being awarded the University Cup, Brett is honoured. “I like to think of the University Cup as recognition for the great students that I have been associated with.”