Award-winning support staff help researchers hit their stride

Shannon Erichsen and Charlene Nielsen have different skills and talents, but both define success by how they help others succeed.

By Michael Brown on September 17, 2013

Edmonton) Despite vastly different job descriptions and talents, the most telling trait that 2013 University of Alberta Support Staff Research Enhancement Award winners Shannon Erichsen and Charlene Nielsen share is the gratification they get out of helping others hit their stride.

“One of my favourite things is being at a conference or a department research day and seeing a very well-prepared student present their work,” said Erichsen, who is now in her third year as undergraduate education team lead in the Department of Surgery. “When you see them go through their project and answer questions with such confidence, it is such a great feeling.

“You know you are on to something good and you need to keep it up.”

Putting research into practice

Erichsen, who assists in innovating the surgery content of the medical school curriculum, is trying to duplicate the success she had during her 11 years as medical education program assistant in the Department of Radiology and Diagnostic Imaging. One of Erichsen’s previous triumphs was creating a more structured and collaborative summer student research experience between students and clinicians by showing students how their research can fit into a physician's career.

“The only way this is successful is if you have buy-in, and I have been so lucky to have people I work with be passionate about recognizing that this is important,” said Erichsen, who added the sooner you can expose medical students to clinical experiences and research, the sooner they can make informed decisions about what they want to do within their upcoming careers in medicine.

“It's important for them to see where their research can fit into their medical career and see that they can have a great practice and still have time to do research within that practice.”

Bringing data down to earth

Nielsen, a geographic information systems (GIS) analyst in the Department of Biological Sciences since 2001, says her secret to others’ success is her own perpetual need to be better at the job she still considers her “dream job.”

“It is such an interdisciplinary science that you can bring in ideas from all these different disciplines,” said Nielsen. “I love to continue to learn and expand my horizons. There is never any limit to what you can do.”

To help her grow her own skills, Nielsen, who provides GIS support for an average of 60 researchers and almost as many projects per year, began organizing GIS Day in 2003 as a way for the GIS following on campus to stay abreast of each other’s work.

“It’s so nice to see what everybody else is doing in the various disciplines, and get together to figure out different methods and solutions to GIS problems instead of reinventing the wheel,” said Nielsen, who has organized the 10th anniversary of GIS Day for Nov. 20. “It is also a great way to show off the amazing research the students and researchers in my department are doing.”

Nielsen says thanks come in many ways—whether they are expressed verbally on the spot, quietly inserted as an acknowledgement in theses and scientific publications, or even offered much later when a student goes on to a career in GIS—but seeing researchers that she has worked with intelligently apply GIS to their data is gratification enough.

“It's rewarding to know that I can make a positive difference in their academic journeys and help them learn to think in different ways than they normally would in the biological sciences.”

Erichsen and Nielsen are among top faculty, staff and students being recognized at the university’s annual Celebrate! Teaching. Learning. Research event Sept. 19. All are welcome to attend the event.