Letter from the Director

In the 2015/16 academic year, I was in my second term as a Wall Scholar and had not yet begun my tenure as Director of the Peter Wall Institute. It was a very fulfilling time, as I grew close with the others in my cohort, and continued along a path of intellectual transformation that expanded my research horizons and shaped my scholarly perspectives. I became further convinced that the Peter Wall Institute is uniquely positioned to bring together many domains of research, scholarship and artistic expression to tackle fundamentally important questions. My colleagues and I particularly enjoyed the media training we underwent as we prepared for the first Wall Scholars Speakers Video Series. These videos featured each scholar presenting an accessible view into their research, aimed at broad public dissemination and impact. The process was challenging, as we sought to strip away layers of academic jargon and find the essence of our work in a manner that would engage those outside our fields and well beyond the confines of the university. The process helped us develop knowledge translation skills to explain the research-based solutions we develop in addressing challenges facing our society. These skills will become increasingly important for academics if universities are to take on their rightful roles providing input for policy makers and keeping citizens informed on the issues that matter.

The two speakers at the Wall Exchange lectures exemplified how important knowledge translation has become, and showed why the free public lectures represent high points on the Institute’s events calendar. In the fall of 2015, Eyal Weisman, the lead investigator for the Forensic Architecture research project, spoke to a sold out crowd at Vancouver’s downtown Vogue Theatre. He spoke passionately about how the physical evidence of destruction in conflict zones can be used to monitor the crimes of combatants. At the time, Dr. Weizman was working with Amnesty International to launch an investigation in Syria in the midst of that country’s raging civil war. In the Spring 2016 Wall Exchange, Dr. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University Professor of the history of science, related how corporations can corrupt science to mislead the public on critical issues including the dangers of tobacco, asbestos, fire retardants and, most recently, climate change.

Along with the Wall Exchange lectures, the Institute sponsored a number of initiatives and activities that have significantly raised its profile at the University of British Columbia, within Vancouver and Canada, and internationally. Our Wall Solutions Program funded UBC researchers’ efforts to overcome challenges where feasible solutions exist to complicated problems such as food and water security, social and environmental injustice, health care delivery, and renewable energy. The Wall Solutions harness high-level research to the practical needs of local, national or international community partners. They allow the university to collaborate with community agencies, and provide an avenue for UBC research to positively impact society. 

A major focus over the past year has been the reinvigoration of international program activities. This is a complex landscape, with a range of programs, international partnerships and research exchanges. The International Visiting Research Scholars program has been in place for approximately five years, with the aim of bringing some of the world's best scholars to UBC to work with UBC Faculty members. The Institute hosted a series of International Research Roundtables that provided opportunities for scholars, community leaders, artists, policy makers and others to explore themes, create foundations for innovative research and prompt important advances in scholarship and society. We have maintained our strong connection with the Collège de France in Paris, and there has also been increased interest in the existing partnership with the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS), near Cape Town, South Africa. Over the coming year, several Wall Associates will spend time in residence at STIAS, and we will be running two International Research Colloquia there.

The last few months, since I have taken on the role of Director, have been exceptionally busy, but also highly invigorating. My intention is to reposition the Institute as the central hub for exciting intellectual discourse on campus—the crown jewel of UBC, and a model for all academic units. It has been a pleasure to interact with so many diverse and talented scholars from all corners of the UBC campus, and across the world. There is so much we can accomplish, and I am looking forward with enthusiasm and optimism.

Dr. Philippe Tortell,