Horticulturalist Mike Dixon has a secret desire to grow roses on the moon. Don’t laugh—he may just pull it off. In the past five years, the University of Guelph scientist has parlayed a modest $50,000 grant into what is on its way to being a $ 10-million annual research program, one of the largest of its kind in the world. This week, top scientists from the European, Canadian and American space agencies are descending on Guelph, Ont., to discuss how to sustain cosmic crops during a long space mission to the moon or Mars. They will tour the university’s high-tech lifesupport system for plants where the light from the microwave-powered lamps is so photosynthetically pure that even the sun blanches with envy.
This is the new Guelph. Building on its strengths as the country’s oldest agricultural college, preoccupied with the safety and quality of food, the new Guelph is branching out dramatically into the latest biological and environmental fields. It wants to be on the cutting edge of science with a conscience. Head in the clouds, feet on the ground: that’s the right prescription for university president Mordechai Rozanski. Guelph has one of the largest research budgets for its size in the country, but it is also a tight-knit community of just over 14,000 students and 620 faculty, with 13 large residences encircling the grounds. Nearly 4,600 people live on campus, and an almost equal number of students work there part time as well. This balance between high-tech research and undergraduate intimacy—not to mention a vigorous theatre and fine-arts program—is what has made Guelph the winner in the Comprehensive category, overtaking Simon Fraser, last year’s winner. It also explains how Guelph can boast both the transgenic
pig, whose custom-designed organs may be used in human transplants, and the two recent winners of the North American Debating Championship.
To strengthen its sense of community, Guelph has become one of the most aggressive universities in ensuring that students succeed in that all-important first year. New students are “clustered” in dorms with those taking the same courses, creating partnerships for newcomers. A recent innovation: the office of first-year studies has identified the seven courses with the highest dropout rate, and trained senior students to help turn the tide. These thirdand fourth-year students hold weekly seminars to try to determine who is “getting” the material.
Ten years ago, only about 70 per cent of Guelph students went on to second year, says Rozanski. “Now, our retention rate is over 90 per cent.”
One of those who will surely go on is 19-year-old Aviva Leber of Ottawa, a first-year student in molecular biology. A top scholar and field-hockey player, as well as a dedicated volunteer, Leber chose Guelph because of its research strengths—and because she wanted a “university town” to help focus her goals. Says Leber: “I get the feeling they really want us to succeed.” Success is in the air. After a severe retrenchment in the early ’90s—almost 70 programs were merged or dropped—“it is time for expansion,” Rozanski insists. Rooted in the fertile farming country of southern Ontario, the sky is the limit. Maybe even the moon.
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