Monthly Archives: October 2019

The life deeply lived

After decades of taking names and kicking ass in universities around the world, Halifax-bred oceanographer Anya Waite comes home to launch her next, excellent adventure on the high seas of academe

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Once, many years ago and for no particular reason, a Portuguese cop proclaimed that the future scientific director of the Ocean Frontier Institute in Halifax was a prostitute.

“I was 20, alone in the Azores, waiting to join a five-week research cruise of the North Atlantic,” Anya Waite recounts. “Suddenly, this guy grabbed my arm and started dragging me down the gangway. He saw I was the only woman among 100 scientists and crew on board. He was sure I was. . .well, you know.”

Then again, people have been saying strange things to the good doctor, about the good doctor, for as long as she can remember.

There was that time, for example, when an academic superior tried to corner her by insisting: “Feminism is over; stop fussing and get back to work.”

There was that other time when a lab supervisor attempted to compliment her by professing: “Your data set gives me a hard on. Thanks.”

And how can she forget the moment when the new dean of one university, which employed her as the sole female acting head of school, commented that it did not, in fact, employ any female acting heads of school?

It’s not that she goes out of her way to attract the attention of weirdos, she says. It just seems to come naturally (like the violin, which she plays avidly when she’s not examining the biological-physical couplings of marine organisms).

Or maybe it goes with the territory of having worked on almost every continent, doing some of the most prestigious academic jobs, in oceanography and environmental systems engineering, the world has to offer.

“You have to put yourself in the way of things,” she smiles broadly. “It’s about the life deeply lived.”

That should come in handy now that she’s at the helm of one of Canada’s more intriguing and recent experiments in public-private sector collaborations. Part think tank, part incubator, part Dragons’ Den, the Ocean Frontier Institute came to life 28 months ago thanks to a $227-million investment from the feds and various non-governmental agencies to push the limits of collaboration between marine researchers and the rest of us.

Global warming has started the countdown on sustainable innovation in ocean sciences, where practical applications already affect everything from offshore fisheries and aquaculture to transportation and renewable energy. The Institute, which is led by Dalhousie University and its partners at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Prince Edward Island, aims to cultivate the best, newest ideas for everyone, everywhere.

According to Waite, who became its science head only last year, it’s exciting, timely and necessary. “We’re trying to move ocean studies to a more useful place in the conversation,” she says. “Historically, research is an ivory tower, and we’re really working to break that down; to make the dialogue easier between academics and their potential stakeholders, which include governments, industries and communities. In fact, it won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be a straight line.”

That, alone, may render her the perfect candidate for the job.

Born and raised in Halifax, the youngest daughter of a famous historian and a woman who had once been arrested for anti-Nazi agitation in her native Croatia, Waite’s early life wasn’t exactly placid or predictable.

“Dad taught classes and wrote books, but most of all he loved to just get up and head out the door and into the woods,” she says about her father P.B. Waite, now 97. “My sister Nina and I would put on back packs and go with him when we could. He was passionate about conservation. He actually wanted to be a forester. In fact, he was one of the reasons Crystal Crescent Beaches became a provincial park. He and three of his walking buddies from Dal arranged to have the land purchased from the owner – who had wanted to turn it into a gravel pit – and put into the Province’s hands.”

Her late mother Masha, meanwhile, was a force to be reckoned with. “She once hosted a delegation of Chinese economists in the 1970s before that country’s markets had opened up,” Waite says. “At one point during dinner, my mother blurted, ‘Chinese economists, eh? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?’ To their credit, they loved it. The thing about her was that you couldn’t really get away with anything. She expected us kids to perform academically, engage with the world, stay fit, and, above all, challenge shoddy thinking wherever we encountered it.”

It was a tall order, and Waite did her best to fill it. After high school, she studied violin, thinking she might become a concert musician. She switched to English because, she says, she loved to write. In the end, though, biology grabbed her and held on tight. And she was good at it, though that did not always guarantee smooth sailing.

The thing about inheriting both your father’s and mother’s passions and principles – in this case, and in equal measure, wanderlust and intellectual honesty – is that you tend to invite a certain amount of disruption into your life. So it was for Waite in the early 1990s, when – having earned a BSc from Dalhousie and a PhD from the University of British Columbia – she entered a post-doc program at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. She hated it. “I left because I was devasted that the conversation there wasn’t about science anymore,” she says. “It was about money just when funds were shrinking.”

She thought about becoming an orthodontist because, she laughs now, “At least I’d have a dental plan.” Instead, she took a job running a microscopy lab in New Zealand. Then, after conducting a seminar for that country’s National Institute for Water and Atmosphere, she fell in love with oceanography all over.

She embarked on research excursions, honed her academic skills and credentials, published original papers on complex topics, and embraced the rigours of teaching and training young minds. In 1997, she moved to the University of Western Australia in Perth, where she rose to the lofty position of Winthrop Professor of Environmental Systems Engineering. Still, eventually, she ran afoul of that institution’s old boy network. “I was there for 17 years, most of them good ones,” she says. “But, it sort of closed in on me. There were serious gender issues. As I was getting more and more senior, I was getting more and more push back to the point where I was worried about my career.”

Then came an offer in 2014 from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, of section head for polar biological oceanography to lead studies in, among other things, the micro-environments of the tiny marine plants and animals known collectively as plankton. The move was a sea change, both figuratively and literally. “I thought here’s a spot where I can actually say what’s on my mind. I came from a place that said, ‘Please do sit down and be quiet,’ to one that said, ‘Speak up, we hired you for your brain. . .der kopf.’”

As chance would have it, that cognitive derring-do was precisely what Halifax’s Ocean Frontier had been searching for. So far, Waite has not disappointed. “From the moment she arrived last year, her enthusiasm at being back in Atlantic Canada and for ocean research were immediately evident,” OFI’s chief executive officer Wendy Watson-Wright (who holds a PhD in Physiology from Dalhousie) says. “Her abundant energy and ideas will certainly help us achieve a lasting legacy.”

Adds Waite’s long-time colleague Paul Snelgrove, OFI’s Newfoundland-based Associate Scientific Director who undertook his own post-doc at Woods Hole when Waite was there: “Working with her again, I can see her passion has not diminished whatsoever. It’s great to have her back playing a critical role for ocean sciences here in Atlantic Canada. She is already making a difference.”

Waite admits she wasn’t looking for a move back to her origins. But the timing seemed as irresistible as the opportunity. After 30 years abroad, here was a chance to bring it all home – to square the big, broad circle that has been her life.

Now comfortably ensconced in her hometown with her husband and kids, in a job she’s frankly crazy about, is she worried that things will get strange again – that the weirdos will come out to play again?

She shrugs and smiles slightly.

Yes?

No?

She hopes so?

After all, it’s about the life deeply lived. Is it not?

For: Halifax Magazine, October 2019

 

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The hellaciously happy life of Marq de Villiers

The world-beating, Nova Scotian journalist and author has another book out. It’s about the afterlife. And, as usual, it’s a helluva read 

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Marq de Villiers – who grew up in 1940s Apartheid South Africa, who became a Reuters news agency reporter covering the revolutionary bonfires of mid-20th Century Latin America, who moved to the Toronto Telegram’s Moscow bureau during the iciest days of late-60s Cold War mongering, who assumed the editorship of Canada’s most successful metropolitan magazine only to be slapped with a $102-million libel suit in the 1980s, and who has lived, since 1997, with his wife along a storm-lashed stretch of Nova Scotia’s South Shore – has been thinking a lot about hell lately.

Of course, that’s what you get when you write a book called Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment, his latest and 18th released to generally warm reviews in March. People tend to ask questions, like: What is hell, anyway?

He could say something portentous. He could muse, for example, about hell as metaphor for the awful state of human affairs (which, he thinks, it is). He could talk about its many manifestations in the collective imaginations of civilizations through the centuries (which, in the book, he does).

But, in conversation, he’s more likely to confess he doesn’t really have a clue. The odd time, though, he does have fun with the question, as he does today during lunch at The Port Grocer Café in Port Medway, about six kilometres from his home at Eagle Head.

“Buddhists don’t have a god,” he says before tucking into a sandwich. “On the other hand, they sure do have plenty of hells.”

In fact, he notes, some historical texts portray ancient monks ardently embracing the notion of a supernatural that tortures the dead essentially by numbing them to death (again) with bureaucracy – perdition as a cosmic joke without a punch line but plenty of folding chairs.

This is how he puts it in his book: “In Chinese Buddhism, hells were ever more pedantic and ever more frustrating. More impressive than even the punishments are the lists of sins. . .Here we find people who keep other people’s books, pretending to have lost them, people who lie about their ages when they get married, people who throw broken pottery over fences, those who write anonymous placards, those who allow their mules to be a nuisance, and people who complain about the weather. Hell often seems to consist of endlessly waiting in anterooms.”

He takes a sip of wine. “Now that,” he smiles, “is what I call hell.”

Of course, that might only mean that de Villiers – born 79 years ago, the son of Rene and Moira de Villiers, in Bloemfontein, a small city in the South African province of Free State – has never really gotten the hang of the whole “waiting in anterooms” thing.

Even as a kid, boredom not brimstone was the real adversary. Avoiding it is what first drew him to writing – eventually about everything from the turbulent history and politics of his native country to modern life along the storied Volga River, from the fate of the world’s supply of water to fermenting the perfect glass of wine, from the clipped beauty of the schooner Bluenose to tips for surviving a post-apocalyptic future – more than 60 years ago.

“I had just finished high school and I was waiting to start college at the University of Cape Town,” he recounts. “I had seven or eight months on my hands, so I walked into the local newspaper where the news editor told me to go into town and come back with a story. I had no idea what he was talking about. But I talked to a few people, and went back to write the thing. ‘That’s great’, the editor said. I remember thinking: ‘People get paid to do this?’”

That’s not to say his writing life has always been hell-free. Learning how to cover the turbulent politics of South America from his London-bound desk at Reuters in the early 1960s wasn’t much fun. (“That was about the worst job I ever had,” he says flatly.)

Similarly, covering Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon’s delicate dance during the breaking days of international détente as the Toronto Telegram’s Moscow correspondent in the early 1970s could be tricky. And there was almost nothing uplifting about being sued, along with writer Elaine Dewar and his bosses, over a 50,000-word piece he authorized as Editor of Toronto Life magazine in late 1980s that cut a tad too close to the bone for the powerful Reichmann family’s liking. (The suit was later settled out of court. “That was not the funnest part of my career,” he grimaces”)

Still, he has to admit, he’s led a pretty charmed life: A decent education at the University of Cape Town and London School of Economics; generally good and interesting gigs on three continents; a truckload of prizes, including a Governor General’s Award for non-fiction; a happy and lasting marriage to journalist Sheila Hirtle, his sometimes writing partner; and a wildly beautiful spot in Nova Scotia, where he and his wife have made a cozy home since 1997.

Mostly, though, he’s been free to write pretty much whatever and whenever he chooses – a liberty that his fans, friends and colleagues appreciate almost as much as he does. “He’s a fascinating blend of the down-to-earth Canadian and the exotic,” says Nova Scotia journalist and author Silver Donald Cameron, who in the 1970s shared contributing editor duties with de Villiers at Weekend Magazine in Toronto. “He’s rooted here, but he writes hauntingly about Africa, where he was raised, and he writes with great authority because of the depth and accuracy of his research.”

So, then, given his broadly rewarding circumstances, here’s the other question he gets concerning Hell and Damnation (University of Regina Press): Why’d you write it?

The closest he comes to a public explanation is in his own blog: “This book is for those with an interest in the picaresque, but also for those who look on the human religious project with a certain scepticism, and are keeping a wary eye on the continuing overlap between faith and politics.”

Privately, the explanation is even simpler: Hell is damn funny.

“I was reading this piece in The Economist back in 2012,” he says. “It was called ‘Hell: A very rough guide’.”

That article began: “Hell is steadily losing adherents. The Infernal Tourist Board) has therefore produced a promotional flyer.” It ended: “To sum up: ‘Hell: Your first resort, and your last!’”

De Villiers deadpans: “I found the piece very interesting. . .well, that and the fact that Galileo once pegged the centre of hell at a place 422 kilometres straight down from the surface of the Earth, because that’s where Satan’s naval was indisputably located.”

He pauses, and digs for his wallet. Apparently, it’s time to blow this particular anteroom.

“You know, I have an idea for another book,” he says absently.

Is this one about heaven, perchance?

He pretends not to hear.

“I’m thinking about calling it The Longbow, the Schooner, and the Violin.

That seems benign.

“It’s about wood.”

He rises to leave.

“Actually it’s about wood, commerce and art.”

He steps towards the Café’s exit.

“And war.”

Then, he’s gone into the salt smell of sea air where, far short of eternal damnation, he goes to think a lot about whatever the hell he wants.

For: Halifax Magazine, October 2019

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When people are strange

Almost nothing about her job as the new president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is familiar, but Aoife Mac Namara wouldn’t have it any other way

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In the vestibule of the downtown Halifax campus of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design the commissionaire is telling Aoife Mac Namara about a book. He doesn’t remember its title, or the author’s name, but it has something to do with 10,000 hours. “That’s how long it takes to get good at something,” he says.

The new president of the university is hanging on his every word. She grips the corners of his desk. She shuffles her feet. She nods enthusiastically as if they were dear, old friends. They’re not. They just met.

Or maybe they met a few weeks ago when, on her first day of work, she paused briefly to introduce herself and pronounce her name – which is Irish for “radiant” and sounds like “ee-faw” – before bounding up the stairs to her new digs on the fourth flour.

Her office is sparse. Sticks of furniture rest by a window that affords a view of Historic Properties and the harbour beyond. She has spent the past four years as Dean of Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communications, Art and Technology in Burnaby, B.C. This, too, is very strange. The space is queer. She’s not used to it. She likes it.

“We have to get used to the unfamiliar,” she says, not actually referring to the room where she sits or the man in the lobby. “We have to embrace it, be happy with it. That’s how we make ourselves more open.”

In fact, that’s been her signature move for most of her life. Born in Amherst, N.S., her Irish parents moved the family back to their homeland when she was three. As a young woman, she received two masters degrees and a PhD in fine arts before climbing the academic career ladder and eventually returning to Canada as Dean of Visual Art and Material Practice at Emily Carr University in Vancouver and then to Simon Fraser.

“She’s a visionary, and students are at the centre of this,” Ellen Balka, Associate Dean of SFU’s communications faculty, says about her old boss. “But she also has a very strong understanding of structures and how they work. She’s not afraid to jump right in and figure things out, and that means she knows how to make change.”

She’ll have to as NSCAD endures one of its existential moments. Students fret about purpose and prices. Faculty (who went on strike earlier this year) worry about workload and wages. Administrators deliver balanced budgets to their Board of Governors, while outsiders question whether the 132-year-old institution can stomach the pressure to become more “market-savvy”, more “job-preppy”.

Mac Namara insists she packs no silver bullets. But she does have a plan, of sorts. She wants to know what, exactly, students hope to pull from the place. She’s keen to understand what, precisely, teachers need to cultivate imaginative thinking. She’s determined to meet with and hear from as many citizens of her college as she possibly can, and to fold their promising ideas and inspirations into the school’s curriculum.

She also wants to know who isn’t there. Who is, well, unfamiliar. “Why, for example, are other people not partnering with us?”

By “partnering”, she means with the big, wide world beyond the university’s doors. “We must demonstrate the impact that cultural industries have in different ways on the economy. It’s actually huge.”

She’s not wrong. Canadian Heritage estimates that in 2017 creative industries accounted for $53.1 billion, or 2.7 per cent, of national GDP, and more than 600,000 direct jobs. That’s bigger than mining and agriculture, combined.

“Ask anyone, though, and they won’t believe you,” she says. “So, we need to have better alliances. We we need to go out and talk to our neighbours, to strangers – to all of the people who are building partnerships and enterprise in the knowledge economy, in the ocean superclusters right here. It’s our job to help them comprehend us.”

She wouldn’t be the first head of a fine arts university to throw down this particular gauntlet. Today, as she moves from her seat to take in the view of an alien waterfront, she just sounds like it.

“I don’t buy this whole arts versus the rest of society argument,” she says. “It’s a false dichotomy. But I can sympathize. People believe that stuff. The story goes that you’ll never get a job and that universities don’t add value unless they provide clear programs that lead to existing, traditional employment. That’s disingenuous. We are living in a time when even the most stable professions are beginning to lose massive numbers of workers. Automation is completely changing the workplace.

“What I do buy is this: Students need to talk to people they don’t know. Teachers need to do the same thing. We all need to do this – to be open, to be empathetic, to learn, to collaborate. That’s how, when we walk out these doors, we’re all going to be future-ready.”

Ready, indeed, for the unexpected, which can be as exciting as getting to know a new job brimming with boundless creative possibilities, a different sea bound coast on the other side of the country, or a stranger who shares the same tastes in reading material.

Ten-thousand hours to get good at something? That’s from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Aoife Mac Namara is not familiar with the book. But, chances are, she will be.

For: Halifax Magazine, September 2019

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