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Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

When Suzanne Fortier studied at McGill University in the 1970s, she didn't know or care who ran the place. But now that she is in charge, she's determined to make sure the average student knows and isn't afraid to pop into lecture halls to introduce herself.

"I myself went to a lot of classes because I wanted to experience the campus from the perspective of students. I took classes in waste management, political science, anthropology, law, water resources management, medicine. It was fantastic," says Dr. Fortier, who is a little over a year into her term as principal and vice-chancellor of the nearly 200-year-old institution.

As a lover of classical music, though, her favourite sessions are the opera master classes. "I've been so often. It's what I love the most. I went to the first class this year and many of the students were returning, so I knew them all. It was just wonderful."

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Over the course of a modest cafeteria lunch on campus – roast-beef and avocado sandwiches – she peppers the conversation with words like "fantastic," "wonderful" and "really great" to express a seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm for music and mathematics, her job, the university, the students, the professors. Not to mention the rich life she has had as a scientist, professor, university administrator and head of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The jacket she wears – adorned with a McGill pin on the lapel – is in "rouge McGill," she says, beaming.

The 64-year-old native of Saint-Timothée, Que., is only the fourth McGill alumnus to become principal, and the first francophone.

She arrived soon after the "Maple Spring" turmoil and student marches over Quebec's proposed tuition hikes as well as mounting concerns about university funding in the cash-strapped province. Some cynics have speculated she was appointed partly with a view to fostering better relations with the provincial government, which has been slashing funding to universities.

"When I came here, it was right after the Printemps érable [Maple Spring], a very difficult period for Quebec universities. So, the notion of it being a dream job was a bit strange because most people would have said it's a nightmare not a dream. But it was truly for me a call to the heart.

"Funding must be more flexible, with a greater emphasis on links with the private sector, partnerships with other countries and donations," she says between nibbles on her sandwich and sips of Perrier.

On another front, she has taken flak from some critics in the academic community who say she was overly eager at NSERC – Canada's key research-funding body – to promote applied research and corporate partnerships at the expense of pure research.

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"A lot of people have the idea – I call them myths – they say: 'Well, if you're working with industry, well you're not as good a researcher, you're not searching the frontier of knowledge' and all that." A study at NSERC found that the highest-rated researchers had a higher incidence of industry collaboration, she says.

"We have a responsibility to make sure there is an exchange of knowledge and that the knowledge that is acquired here – the expertise that is acquired here – is part of a community that can make use of it."

Her journey to the highest reaches of scientific inquiry began when she asked for a chemistry set around the age of 10. She would perform her experiments in the dance hall at her father's hotel in the town of Saint-Timothée, west of Montreal. With five children, there was no suitable space in the Fortier home, and only three books: the Larousse dictionary, the Bible and the Eaton's catalogue.

At the hotel, "There were plenty of tables. They had spilled beer and all of that so I guess my parents didn't worry too much if I spilled any chemicals." Tiring of the "follow the recipe" tests, she set out to make perfume. "I collected flowers and took various chemicals in my little set and mixed them. I wasn't very successful. I had fun. I really had fun."

Her first chemistry teacher was Soeur Irène – one of the nuns at her convent school when she was 16. "A veil is not exactly safe in a chemistry lab so she would put a rubber band in her veil like a ponytail," Dr. Fortier recalls fondly.

Compelling new worlds opened up when she was admitted to McGill, where she specialized in crystallography, the study of atomic and molecular structures. But it was a lecture at a conference she attended, given by U.S. mathematician and future Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Hauptman, that truly set her on fire. "I was just in awe. It was all equations. Every slide was all equations, all in Greek. But I thought it was the most fascinating thing I've ever heard."

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Following her PhD, she continued to do post-doctoral work in molecular biophysics with Dr. Hauptman at a research institute in Buffalo, N.Y.

"The connection was we both so much loved that work, which was very mathematical, and would sit together and admire the equations because there is such beauty. It's like looking at equations in the way you'd look at musical scores, with symmetry and harmony and all that. It's just so beautiful," she says, her elbows propped on the tabletop, her hands gesturing regularly to emphasize a point.

Did she discuss religion with Dr. Hauptman, a well-known atheist and secular humanist? "We never talked about that! Maybe because I was so much in the religious stuff as a kid. This was the old Quebec, and once I walked away from that, as most Québécois did, I never came back."

With her husband – now-retired English literature professor Doug Babington – she lived for a spell in Greece. Later, she extended her work into computing, specializing in the development of mathematical and artificial-intelligence methodologies for protein structure determination.

After a long stretch at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., beginning in 1982, as professor of chemistry and later vice-principal (research) and vice-principal (academic), she became president of NSERC, a transition that did not go smoothly.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 50s. "I'd just arrived at NSERC. 'What am I going to do with this? I'm going to tell them, you've got a lemon. I'm broken.' I felt terrible about that."

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It was former ski champion Nancy Greene, then chancellor of Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, who reassured Dr. Fortier.

"She said: 'Don't worry about that. There's always somebody who's injured on the team. We rally around them.' She said: 'This is going to make your team stronger, not weaker.' After that I was fine.

"I saw it as a challenge. I remember telling my colleagues that I was doing the triathlon: the surgery, the chemo and then the radiology. I felt like an athlete."

Dr. Fortier says she bounced back quickly after the ordeal and the cancer has not reappeared.

Her return to McGill has been a joy. "I'm feeling at home," she says, and she views herself as a "mobilizer" of the students, the faculty and the staff. "If they think I am the one who could really make a difference here, then I should be prepared to do that."

One of the things that struck her when she came back last year is the strong presence of French on campus. To the critics who say McGill is still an anglo enclave, she responds: "They haven't been on campus in a long time. I'm seeing a community here that is very well connected to Montreal and Quebec and I see a community that appreciates the French culture and the French language. Many people speak French here." She herself spoke little English when she first set foot on campus as a wide-eyed keener in 1969.

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Besides her love of music, Dr. Fortier's passions include Italian cuisine and wine. She is an accomplished cook. "I make a very good risotto. My friends like my risotto ai porcini best."

She also continues to perfect her Italian and Greek. The silver earrings she wears to our lunch are from the Greek island of Santorini, her silver pendant a gift from her husband.

Impeccably turned out, displaying infectious joie-de-vivre and high spirits, Dr. Fortier, head of a world-class university with a 38,500-student population and a budget of more than $1-billion, says she has never had training in public speaking.

"But I did do a Hansard training on interviews with journalists," she says, laughing.

"I haven't learned much, I guess you can see. Part of the training, I remember, is 'Just answer the question. No more. Stop!'"

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Background

Born Nov. 11, 1949, Saint-Timothée, Que.

Married to writer Doug Babington, one son.

Attended McGill University, BSc (1972), PhD (1976).

Career hightlights

Innovative post-doctoral research in crystallography with future Nobel Laureate Herbert Hauptman in the late seventies.

Author or co-author of more than 80 scientific papers.

Vice-principal (academic), vice-principal (research), Queen's , 1995-2005

President of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, 2006-13.

Other activities

Member of the Strategic Committee of Investissements d'Excellence Bordeaux; Ontario Task Force on Competitiveness, Productivity and Economic Progress. Serves on the boards of Montréal International, the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, and the Conference Board of Canada; member of Danish Council for Independent Research.

In her own words:

On McGill's role in shaping leaders:

"It's very easy to stand at the sidelines, to be the critic at the outside of the action, to be blogging and tweeting and analyzing from the outside. But we will need our leaders, we need people in the middle of the action and not just people who observe and critique."

On McGill's 21st-place rank in QS world rankings:"People pay attention to those rankings. In a competitive world, if you have strong cards in your deck – well – use them."

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