Tuesday, June 8, 2010

From dropout to doctorate: Douglas distinguished alumnus looks back

2010 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Dr. John Bertram is living proof of how Douglas College can ignite a student’s potential.

“That’s exactly what happened to me,” says Bertram. “I couldn’t have done any of the things I’ve accomplished without the opportunity Douglas College gave me.”

Today, Bertram is a Professor at the University of Calgary, where he serves as Director of the Gross Anatomy Lab and the university’s Body Donation Program in addition to teaching in various programs including biology, anatomy, health sciences and engineering.

But in 1976, he was a high school dropout working his way through a series of odd jobs, from paper mills to thoroughbred stables.

“In high school I didn’t see the point of my studies. I just wanted to get out and start working, but once I was out there, I didn’t find it gratifying,” Bertram recalls. “My life wasn’t really going anywhere; I was just drifting around trying to find myself.”

After hearing radio ads for the then-fledgling college, Bertram decided to register and began filling in the gaps in his high school course work at Douglas College.

“I was totally naïve about what college was all about,” says Bertram. “I had no idea if I could handle it and was scared to death of failing.”

However, with the guidance of Douglas faculty, Bertram found the educational experience he has been missing.

“Douglas College was trying to establish itself and faculty worked hard to take a personal interest in each student and give us a good education,” says Bertram. “There was an interesting array of faculty there who helped open my eyes to an entirely new world of academics that I was totally unaware of before.”

At the time, Douglas College was a very different place than it is today. The campuses in New Westminster and Surrey consisted of portables and Bertram recalls driving back and forth between the two for classes, as well as some of the creative ways faculty worked to bring out the best in students.

“I remember we were given cassette tapes of lectures to listen to on our own time and I’d listen and make notes while eating my lunch in the classroom and fending off the fruit flies that had escaped from the genetics lab.”

Despite the somewhat hodgepodge facilities and sometimes unorthodox teaching methods, Bertram gained an appreciation for education, particularly the subject of biology.

“It was a broad-based education, but it left me with a solid foundation in biology that has stood me well ever since.”

In 1979, Bertram transferred to the Zoology program at UBC where he earned his Bachelor of Science in 1981. In 1984, he completed a Masters Degree of Science specializing in biomechanics and he was accepted to the PhD program at the University of Chicago. There, he received the prestigious William Rainey Harper Pre-doctoral fellowship and graduated with his PhD in 1988. After completing his post-doctoral training at Dalhousie University and at Harvard, Bertram went on to hold faculty positions at Ithaca College, Florida State University and Cornell. But he says it was Douglas where it all began.

“I came to Douglas College at a time of major transition in my life,” says Bertram. “And it showed me what I was capable of.”

Click here to watch a video of Dr. John Bertram's Distinguished Alumni Award acceptance speech from June 3, 2010.