The highest honour an academic staff member can receive from the University of Alberta was recently awarded to researcher and professor Marek Michalak.
Vice-Dean of Research at the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and a professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Michalak was honoured with the University Cup for his successes in teaching, research and community service at the Celebrate! Teaching. Learning. Research ceremony Sept. 27.
Originally from Poland and a faculty member with the U of A since 1987, Michalak has mentored nearly 100 students and post-doctoral fellows in his time at the university. However, he believes working with a vibrant team is far more important that his individual contributions.
“If (the team) will bring passion and motivation to their work, what difference does it make if we are the bosses? As long as (we) provide the environment, the mentorship and the supervision, then everything falls into place,” he said.
“If you really think about it — that’s what I said to the crowd (at the ceremony) — I’m just doing my job, so what’s the big deal?”
The research conducted by Michalak and his team includes the analysis and reduction of protein-folding diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis.
As a leader in the field of molecular cell biochemistry, Michalak’s accolades include the awarding of $24 million in research funding for his lab and the publication of more than 200 academic papers.
Michalak explained most of his research discoveries started from asking curiosity-driven questions.
“In the past 20 years, we’ve been asking ourselves very simple, almost trivial questions that led us to huge findings, such as (issues like) complete heart blocking in children. That received quite a lot of attention,” he said.
“Anything is possible; you just never know what the next discovery brings. That’s the fascinating part of science.”
Michalak believed his biggest challenges as a professor were not from lack of support, but from within himself.
“Considering the support from the government, support from the university (and) support from the department, if you cannot be successful here, then maybe you just cannot be successful, because you can’t find a better place (to do research),” he said.
Michalak said his challenges were to maintain the passion, keep pushing himself and assume that anything is possible.
“The fact that I have the University Cup is a good testimony to the fact that anything is possible,” he said.
“It’s another example that the institution gives you tremendous support. It’s not very common to recognize your own people. That’s something the U of A should be applauded for.”
As the former chair of the Department of Biochemistry, Michalak played a pivotal role in changing the perception of biochemistry at the students’ level.
“With the help of my colleagues, we slowly and gently introduced biochemistry vocabulary to the curriculum of 200-level courses. So when (students) come to third year, they will have the background and knowledge to be interested in this discipline,” he explained.
Nevertheless, Michalak said his most rewarding experience has been teaching graduate students.
“Seeing the students (maturing) from someone who knows literally nothing about the discipline, to within five years, they (become) much better than you are ... Seeing them grow from boys to men, girls to women. You can’t beat that,” he said.
A testament to the rapport between Michalak and his lab members are the Christmas cards created by his lab. Featuring images of the team and prominent events that occurred in the past year, the cards have become a tradition in the last 25 years.
“The beauty of this job is diversity,” said Michalak. “The students come from different countries, different backgrounds (and have) different interests.”
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