When Michael Brett was awarded one of the U of A's McCalla Professorships in 1989, the professor of electrical engineering was excited about the opportunity to concentrate on his research — during the tenure of the professorship, he would have no teaching responsibilities.
As it turned out, Brett didn't enjoy his year as a McCalla Professor to the extent that he thought he would. The plain fact was that he missed the classroom. Not just the interaction that takes place there, but the feeling of satisfaction to be derived from a good lecture sesssion.
Research, Brett points out, can be slow, incremental and painstaking. You can come home after a day of work on a research projectand feel you've not accomplished much, he says. After a good period in the classroom, it's different. "I feel I've done something significant for the day," says Brett, who recently received one of the University's 1994 Rutherford Teaching Awards.
"I enjoy working in front of a large class," says Brett. "I enjoy feeding off of the enthusiasm, and make a point of being enthusiastic myself." He also pays attention to details: starting and finishing on time, being organized, having practical examples to illustrate points, and so on.
Brett credits the Department of Electrical Engineering with having a number of good policies to promote good teaching. When he arrived on campus in the mid'80s, having done his undergraduate studies at Queen's and then earned graduate degrees at UBC, he was eased into his teaching responsibilities, he says. "That allows you to develop courses properly."
He also found mentors at hand, experienced faculty members such as Fred Vermeulen, Bob James and Peter Smy, and his office was situated in such a way that he could exchange hard-earned teaching tips with other young faculty members.
Brett's commitment to teaching is such that it receives extra attention much of the year. "During the school year, I make it a priority to put teaching first," says Brett. But this hasn't prevented him from establishing himelf as one of the research stars within the Faculty of Engineering.
Brett is a specialist in thin films, an expertise which has broad applications. , Thin films give special properties to lenses of every sort— camera lenses, eyeglass lenses, and so on. They are applied the fabrics, to car windows, even to high-denomination bank notes, making them difficult to counterfeit. One of Brett's current projects involves using thin-film technology in a gas-sensing device.
However, the primary thin film application to which Brett gives his attention is the manufacture of computer chips —essentially layers and layers of silicon-based, patterned film.Brett, who wryly observes that making electronic gizmos in silicon is a hot topic these days," is currently involved in work to incorporate miniature coolers , into chips to selectively cool portions of the chip.
This work is being done in conjunction with the Alberta Microelectronic Centre, and the Centre's president, John Zupancic, speaks highly of the work Brett does. "As a researcher he brings to bear to his research, not only his outstanding intellectual abilities, but also a vision and focus to his research program that is unique in the research community.
"This commitment to both focused research and excellence in educating is a rare combination of one individual."
Published Autumn 1994.