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Meet Dr. Karl Tibelius, recipient of the Faculty of Science Honoured Alumni Award 2017

From researcher to research administrator.

January 19, 2017 — 

Dr. Karl Tibelius, [B.Sc. (Hons), Microbiology/79], has had the chance to see the world of research from both sides.

He started his career in the lab as an active microbiology researcher alongside graduate students and other collaborators. Now as the Vice President of Genomics Programs for Genome Canada, a not-for-profit organization funded by the Government of Canada, he facilitates research funding support, contributing to policies and program design.

Dr. Karl Tibelius

“Having the benefit of being a researcher for many years, I can bring that perspective to the funding organization side, and it helps me ground our programs in the reality of what it’s like to do research – to enjoy the thrill of discovery and of hopefully contributing something useful to the world,” Dr. Tibelius explains.

After earning his PhD researching hydrogen oxidation in the soil bacterium Azospirillum brasilense at McGill University in Montreal, Dr. Tibelius moved on to postdoctoral research, using molecular biology and early DNA cloning techniques to study nitrogen fixation at the Agricultural and Food Research Council research unit near Brighton, England. He then returned to McGill as an Assistant Professor before moving into his extensive career in scientific research programming and administration.

Over his career, Dr. Tibelius has gained a wealth of experience in program design, peer review processes, evaluating programs and building beneficial partner relationships. He has contributed to many facets of research support infrastructure in Canada, including the design, implementation and evaluation of various types of research funding programs, helping generate a research environment that allows Canadian scientists to “discover the unknown” and invent a better future.

“It’s really a thrill when you design experiments and discover something new. It may take late nights and long hours, and when things don’t work out can be frustrating, but that thrill of discovery makes it all worthwhile.”

After leadership roles at the Medical Research Council of Canada and its successor, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Dr. Tibelius joined Genome Canada in 2009. He has played a central role in the management of programs that support cutting-edge research harnessing the transformative power of genomics and genomic-based technologies, including bioinformatics. The research funded by Genome Canada has helped Canadians become leaders in many fields of genomics – including health, agriculture and agri-food, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, the environment, energy and mining – along with generating economic and social benefits for Canadians.

On Thursday, January 26, 2017, Dr. Tibelius will receive the Faculty of Science 2017 Honoured Alumni Award for exceptional achievement in Microbiology.

Dr. Tibelius spoke to the Faculty of Science more about his experiences and the path his education and career have taken.

What was your strongest memory from your time studying at the U of M, Faculty of Science?

Well, the strongest would be that I met my wife at UofM! But to focus more on science: being in Honours microbiology, we were a small group of about 12. We got to know each other very well, built up strong bonds, and when we were in third and fourth year, we demonstrated some of the earlier microbiology courses together. We also got to know the profs well, and they really seemed to care and wanted us to learn and develop our critical thinking skills.

I’ll also never forget my fourth-year project. It was related to microbial ecology – trying to simulate a sewage lagoon, growing bacteria in vessels of what we called synthetic sewage, and looking at the different microbial processes as they broke it down. Fortunately it wasn’t real sewage and didn’t have the same aroma!

What opportunity during or after your time in the Faculty of Science helped launch your career?

I was fortunate to obtain an NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) scholarship based on my studies in microbiology at UofM. The profs encouraged me to go wherever the best supervisor was for the particular field I was interested in, even if it meant leaving UofM. So I eventually decided to go to the MacDonald Campus of McGill to do my PhD, where I was able to work with one of the best microbial ecologists in the country at the time on a lab-based project, looking at the physiology of some types of soil bacteria. That’s one thing I really enjoyed about a scientific career and still do: the opportunity to be able to travel and experience different parts of Canada and the world. Meeting new people in fresh environments broadens your horizons and gets you thinking about things in different ways.

What is the most fascinating and/or engaging experience you have had during your career in science?

A couple of things. I’ve always loved to learn about new things and figure out how they work. While I was an assistant professor at McGill, some of my students and I were able to contribute to the sequencing and characterization of the hydrogenase genes in the nitrogen fixing bacterium I was working with at the time, Azotobacter chroococcum. Some of the early discoveries about nitrogen fixation were made with this bacterium along with the characterization of its nitrogen fixation genes, and we started working on its related hydrogenase genes. Even though it was basic discovery research that had no short-term practical application in itself at the time, it helped to build overall knowledge of these types of enzymes.

In 1993, I had the opportunity to manage the national Canadian Genome Analysis and Technology (CGAT) program, when an international human genome project was just getting underway. It was a very exciting time in genomics research. So even though it was a tough choice for me to leave the world of actually doing research, it was too good to pass up, so my wife, my kids and I packed up and moved to Ottawa to work on CGAT at the Medical Research Council. Although the program was relatively small, the researchers we were funding were still able to make some significant contributions to the overall human genome project. They also made significant contributions to other areas, such as the sequencing of the yeast genome – an important organism in many ways including for the making of beer! I worked with a great Management Committee made up of some of Canada’s most eminent research leaders. So even though I wasn’t doing research myself, I was close to the great work being done by the top scientists we were funding. It was a great variety of research and disciplines which made it really fascinating.


2017 Faculty of Science Alumni Awards Event

Recognizing graduates who have made remarkable contributions to discovering the unknown, inventing the future, and advancing the well-being of society.

January, 26, 2017
Marshall McLuhan Hall (University Centre)
University of Manitoba, Fort Garry Campus
3:30 pm- 6:00 pm

The event includes a panel discussion and Q&A where our distinguished guests will share their experiences and offer advice to students about selecting areas of study, navigating career paths, and using their degrees in sometimes unconventional ways.

A reception will follow. Everyone is welcome to attend. Space is limited, so please RSVP by email to foscomms [at] umanitoba [dot] ca to secure your spot.

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