It’s Been Fantastic: on Research at UBC

Last month, we had the chance to sit down with Dr. Helen Burt, Associate Vice-President Research and Innovation (AVPRI) in the Office of the VPRI. From starting in pharmaceutical research, to supporting 15 different research portfolio units, Dr. Burt has always approached research collaboratively and boldly. We’re so excited to share her thoughts with you.


Thanks so much for sitting down with us! Can you tell us about your career path to UBC?

I was born and grew up in Manchester, England. My father owned a shop in Manchester, and my mother was a homemaker. I went to high school in Manchester, and then went to the University of Bath to get a Pharmacy degree. After this, I worked for a year as a trainee Pharmacist in 2 different areas- hospital pharmacy and then in a pharmaceutical company doing R&D. I was really motivated by the potential of doing pharmaceutical research but I realized that I had little to no research experience. I decided to go back to school. My plan was to do a Master’s degree overseas, and then go back to England and find a job in a pharmaceutical company.

I wanted to live outside of England for a while, for a bit of an adventure. I applied to several schools in Canada. The first one to accept me, and provide me with a teaching assistantship (TA), was here at the University of British Columbia. I came here in 1976, embarked on a Master’s degree, and I absolutely loved it. I loved being a TA, I loved the research, I loved being surrounded by smart people and smart students, and I changed my mind about my career path. I decided I’d like to go into academia. I transferred into a PhD program, which I completed in 1980. Fortunately for me, I was in the right degree program at the right time. I applied for several tenure track positions in Canada and I was offered two jobs. One was here in my own Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences. For me, it was an easy decision, so I became an assistant professor at UBC in 1980. The rest is history. I’ve been a professor for 48 years and it’s been fantastic.

Fast forward to now- in 2011, I applied for this position as Associate Vice-President Research and was successful. Now I’ve been in the role for 7 years, and am really enjoying it. I have the opportunity to work with so many amazing and talented faculty, staff and students across the campuses, and including the hospital based research institutes- it’s just been fantastic.


You’ve worked hard to create a space for IRSI within UBC. Why is community-based research so important to you?

I first started on a journey to better understand the nature of community-based research or CBR about 5 years ago, following the release of a report from a Task Force at UBC that pointed out the need for more support and resources for CBR. We created a steering committee of researchers conducting CBR in multiple disciplines – health, science and engineering, social sciences, Indigenous- and got several initiatives underway. In 2015, we completed a consensus report on principles and values of CBR. We did some work to show the societal impacts of CBR.

It also became clear that there was a need to focus on Indigenous community-based research as there was so little centralized facilitation, resources, or coordination support for Indigenous research. I was aware of the challenges in co-developing and co-creating research questions, approaches and methods for community-based research and I became excited at the prospect of developing a support unit for indigenous CBR.

To get started, we did multiple workshops and consultations with scholars, staff, students and community partners on both campuses. Collectively and gradually we developed a vision for the kind of unit that we wanted to create. I received a huge amount of support from Linc Kesler, the former Director of the UBC First Nations House of Learning and the Senior Advisor to the President on Aboriginal Affairs. Linc assisted me in recruiting Lerato Chondoma, who I realized was going to be a great fit for the unit.

And so, IRSI was born. And we have worked to develop a strategic framework, doing a lot more consultation and workshopping. We had our first community gathering in June 2017- five months after we got going. We received an endorsement from the gathering that we were on the right path. They made some important suggestions about things we needed to consider. Here we are today, and the great news is that we’re in the new UBC strategic plan. We’re part of the strategies in the sections on research and global and local engagement, and there’s also an updated Indigenous strategic plan.  I think there’s a very clear signal that this is a very important area for UBC and our portfolio.



What gets you excited about the next decade at UBC?

I think the next 5-10 years is going to be a period of exciting growth for UBC. The connection points for IRSI and other aspects of the strategic plan are really strong. For example, the plan speaks to collaboration and working across disciplines. I think that’s exactly what IRSI is wanting to work towards. Helping researchers from different disciplines come together with communities to co-create new research questions and methodologies and work together in a close collaboration with our partners in community- in order to do some really exciting research.

This is a really important time for working with Indigenous communities to support areas like data governance, according to OCAP™ Principles. I think we can make an important contribution in that area which is a pretty big project. We hope to develop training, mentorship, and providing modules, workshops, even courses at some point to help graduate students, post doctoral fellows, and faculty who would like to work with Indigenous communities but need support to engage with communities in order to build trusting relationships. We want to focus on best practices in terms of engagement, ethics, and research methodology.

The plan also speaks a lot to innovation and impact, and knowledge mobilization. There is huge potential for IRSI, in collaboration with ICER (UBCO Institute for Community Engaged Research), to be the portal for research that the communities would like to get done. For us to establish relationships, partnerships, and co-collaborating on research projects that will have a positive effect on communities in the province, as well as Canada.


What resources exist on campus for researchers looking to engage with Indigenous communities?

Two obvious ones are IRSI and ICER. UBC is demonstrating its commitment to Indigenous involvement through positions like the Senior Advisor to the President on Indigenous Affairs (Sheryl Lightfoot), as well as the new appointment of the Director to the First Nations House of Learning (Margaret Moss). These are going to be really key individuals in terms of support for units and researchers on campus.

We have the SPARC office who can assist with helping to write proposals, letters of support, and more.

We’re building a knowledge exchange unit within VPRI and that will be a unit within the Innovation portfolio that will help researchers and communities partner in appropriate ways. Help develop research protocol agreements, MOUs, contracts, and that sort of thing.

The ARC (Advanced Research Computing) unit in VPRI is already helping us with data governance, and setting up protocols so that UBC can work with communities incorporating OCAP™ principles.


Is there anything else that you’d like to touch on for the blog?

The only other thing I can think of is that we’ve developed our Strategic Framework for IRSI. It would be great to provide a link to it so that readers can take a look at it. It was based very much on the UBC Strategic Plan, and will guide us for the next 3-5 years.


Check out IRSI’s new 2018 Strategic Plan here!