Here’s a tip for prospective graduate students hoping to make an impression on University of Calgary Biological Sciences professor Peter Tieleman: get a life outside the lab.
“One of the things I look at is whether they have interests outside their major,” says Tieleman. “Anything at a serious level, some other passion, is generally a good prediction of how well they will do as researchers.
“One of the best predictors I think of success in science is being sufficiently passionate so you can go through the low periods when nothing works, when it seems like you make no progress. That always happens.”
Tieleman is speaking from experience. As an undergraduate student, he pursued an additional major in philosophy and medieval studies when he began to lose interest in chemistry, his primary field of study. “I may have left chemistry if I hadn’t been able to do other things,” he recalls. “In hindsight, it would have been a shame, because I do like chemistry now.”
It would also have been a shame considering what Tieleman has gone on to accomplish in his relatively short academic life thus far.
He received his Ph.D (cum laude) in Biophysical Chemistry from the University of Groningen in his native Netherlands in 1998, and did post-doctoral work at both his alma mater and Oxford University. By 2000, Tieleman had turned more than a few heads, including some at the U of C, with his research using computer modelling technologies to study molecular biophysics and its application in treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
That year, Tieleman accepted an assistant professorship with the department of Biological Sciences, leaving behind the centuries-old institutions of Europe for the decades-old U of C, a decision helped by his love of the Rockies and his interest in outdoor pursuits like hiking and skiing.
In 2005, at the academically precocious age of 33, he became a tenured professor and, by extension, an ambassador for his home institution and adopted city.
The professional accolades continue to come. In addition to his contributions to grant-review panels for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Tieleman is on the editorial boards of eight scientific journals, a considerable feat when many of his seniors count one or two on average.
Last year, he was awarded the prestigious Royal Society of Canada Rutherford Memorial Medal in Chemistry. This year, he received the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship, which is given to the top natural scientist in Canada 12 years or less into their career.
Clearly the future holds even grander things for this model academic, whose passion is to better understand the smallest building blocks of life.
Why he’s the top: His ground-breaking work with computer modelling of cells could lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s and prion diseases, as well as bringing funding and accolades to the U of C.
The key to his success: A passion for learning, not just in his chosen field but overall, and a talent for con-veying his research via scientific articles and lectures.