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Doors open

Biochemistry prepares for 50th anniversary reunion

Campus and Community

By Kelly Foss

On July 1, 2017, Memorial University will mark a special milestone.

On that date, the Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science, which first opened on July 1, 1967, will turn 50 years old. To commemorate, the department is hosting a reunion weekend Sept. 8-10 and hopes to reconnect with many former students, staff and faculty.

Number of events

Dr. Mark Berry is the current head of the department. He says details about the reunion are still being finalized, but plans include a dinner and reception, and an open house.

“We will be opening our labs to visitors on Sept. 9, and students will display posters and share their research,” he said.

“This will provide our alumni the chance to see new research space that has been added to the department since their time, especially the Biotechnology building facilities which came online in the early ’90s, and learn about the research of some of our newer department members.”

From left are the original five staff members in Biochemistry: Dr. Peter O'Brien, associate professor; Dr. L. A.W. (Woody) Feltham, professor and head; Helen Kennedy, secretary to the head; Veronica Hillier, science assistant; and Munden Bray, science assistant.
From left are original biochemistry staff Dr. Peter O’Brien, professor; Dr. Feltham, head; Helen Kennedy, secretary; Veronica Hillier, assistant; and Munden Bray, assistant, in 1967.
Photo: Submitted

Reconnect and reminisce

The reunion dinner and reception will take place on Friday, Sept. 8, at the Johnson Geo Centre, with tickets on sale at $50 per person. The evening has been designed to provide ample opportunity to reconnect and reminisce with old classmates, staff and faculty. The location also provides easy access to the downtown district for those that wish to continue into the later hours.

“Things are changing and in five years the department is likely going to look very different.” — Dr. Mark Berry

Dr. Berry estimates more than 2,200 students have passed through the department’s doors over the last 50 years and he’s looking forward to the opportunity to meet as many of them as possible.

“The great thing about a reunion is it will allow us to get a handle on who our alumni are,” he said. “We know they feel a great affinity for the Department of Biochemistry, but in the past we haven’t been great at keeping in touch with them. Also, if anyone has old memorabilia or photos from their time in the department that they are willing to share, we’d love to hear from them.”

A recreation photo of the original five Biochemistry staff members. From left are Dr. Sean Brosnan, professor; Dr. Mark Berry, professor and head; Betty Ann Gaslard, secretary to the head; Marie Codner, student laboratory supervisor; and Craig Skinner, IT and instrumentation support.
From left, Dr. Sean Brosnan, professor; Dr. Mark Berry, head; Betty Ann Gaslard, head secretary; Marie Codner, lab supervisor; and Craig Skinner, IT, recreate the original photo.
Photo: Submitted

With some of the department’s longtime faculty members set to retire in the next few years, Dr. Berry notes this may be one of the last chances for alumni to come back and see some of those familiar faces.

“Things are changing and in five years the department is likely going to look very different,” he said. “Alumni who were here in the ’80s and ’90s will still recognize most of the people around here, but I suspect not for much longer.”

A long history

The first course in biochemistry at Memorial was given in the Department of Biology by Dr. Woodrow (Woody) Feltham, who was chief clinical chemist at the General Hospital at the time.

The idea that a Department of Biochemistry should be created was at first rejected by one of the committees looking at the possibility of establishing a new medical school at Memorial.

They suggested that three basic science departments — biochemistry, physiology and microbiology — should be established before the admission of the first class of medical students. These departments were to be hosted by the Faculty of Arts and Science until such time as the medical school should be established; they would then become part of the medical school.

“This work, in my opinion, was among the most consequential ever carried out at Memorial.” — Dr. Sean Brosnan

Of these three, only the Department of Biochemistry was established, with Dr. Feltham as its head. A professor of physiology, Ken Roberts, was appointed and also became associate dean of Basic Medical Sciences.

“Ken was philosophically opposed to the idea of departments; he felt that they caused artificial divisions in what should be a seamless body of knowledge and scholarly enquiry,” said Dr. Sean Brosnan, the longest serving member of the biochemistry department’s faculty.

“He established the Division of Basic Medical Sciences, which has since become the Division of Biomedical Sciences, within the medical school. Woody Feltham decided that biochemistry should remain within the Faculty of Arts and Science, soon to become the Faculty of Science.”

When Dr. Brosnan arrived at Memorial in January of 1972, the department had four faculty members: Dr. Feltham, Peter O’Brien, Clive Little and John Wheldrake. They were joined by Dr. Brosnan and another assistant professor, Peter Penner.

However, Profs. Little and Wheldrake left soon after. Kevin Keough joined in September of 1972; Choi Hew and Margaret Brosnan joined in the fall of 1974.

At the time, research areas included biological oxidation, metabolism, membranes and molecular biology.

“Choi Hew teamed up with Garth Fletcher of the Ocean Sciences Centre, then the Marine Sciences Research Laboratory, to pioneer ways of introducing foreign genes into salmon,” said Dr. Brosnan.“This work, which, in my opinion, was among the most consequential ever carried out at Memorial, directly led to the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption by the FDA.”

A lasting impact

Drs. Sean and Margaret Brosnan  are conservatively estimated to have taught 90-95 per cent of the department’s 2,200 alumni in some capacity, and are still going strong.

Drs. Sean and Margaret Brosnan.
Drs. Sean and Margaret Brosnan.
Photo: Submitted

“It’s impossible for me to calculate how many undergraduates I may have taught,” said Dr. Sean Brosnan.“Certainly, enrolment in the third-year metabolism course has increased from about 15 per year to more than 200. I calculate that more than 100 students have received research training in my laboratory, as summer/honours students, graduate students or post-doctoral fellows.

“My most pleasant and memorable events have all had to do with the success of the students,” he added.

“The department has seen four Rhodes Scholars, Tim Whalen, Ann Colbourne, Paul Boland and Luke Pike; two future Canada Research Chairs, Tim Whalen and Jason Treberg; and two future heads of nutrition departments, Jim House and Mark Jois. Many others have gone on to careers in academia or the professions, particularly in medicine.”

Join in!

Online registration for the reunion recently opened and alumni, staff, faculty and friends of the department can register here.

The department has also created a dedicated reunion email address, biochem50@mun.ca, for alumni who wish to send in memorabilia, such as photos or copies of old mixer posters and exams, or stories about the department. Sponsorship opportunities are also available and full details can be requested through the biochem50 email address.

To learn more about the Department of Biochemistry, visit their website, or Facebook page.


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