Porter, Susan

Portrait photo of Susan  Porter


Porter, Susan


Academic Ranks(s):

Clinical Professor, UBC, Dean and Vice-Provost, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies


UBC Campus

Short Bio

Dr. Porter is a molecular biologist by trade. Originally from Montreal, she came to UBC in 1980 to complete her PhD and was appointed as Assistant Professor in 1991.

She left basic research six years later to lead the molecular diagnostic work for the microbiology laboratory at Vancouver General Hospital. With an interest in graduate education, she became increasingly involved in administration, culminating in her appointment in 2011 as interim Dean of Graduate Studies, and as Dean and Vice-Provost in 2013. In her role, she leads the charge in championing graduate education and postdoctoral studies at UBC, and helping to ensure they are the best they can be.


Academic Background

  • PhD, University of British Columbia, Biochemistry. 1988
  • BSc, University of New Brunswick, Biology/Chemistry. 1980

Awards and Recognition



Research Interest

  • regulation of chromatin structure and gene expression
  • molecular biology of pigment cell development and tumorigenesis in the mouse
  • development and oversight of nucleic acid-based tests for the medical microbiology laboratory

Current Projects In My Lab Include


Teaching Interest

For the last decade, my primary focus in “teaching” has been in graduate and postdoctoral education administration and professional development. During my 2-year tenure as Graduate Advisor for Pathology, one of my key interests was in ensuring that all conditions relevant to the research environment and student-supervisor relationship were made very clear at the outset of the students’ program. Lack of clarity in these matters is repeatedly cited as detrimental to the graduate student experience, both at UBC and beyond. I accordingly instituted a mandatory “checklist of expectations” for every new student, to be discussed and signed by both parties. This is still in use, and has been used as a model for other programs. Among other administrative initiatives, I also researched, trialled, and instituted an annual evaluation of the student’s and supervisor’s performance (presented at the 2003 AAMC GREAT meeting), and instituted an exit survey.
Among the more significant initiatives in my 6-yr (two term) appointment as Assistant Dean in Medicine were the following, all a first-time occurrence at UBC: the establishment of a Postdoctoral Coordinator position, the development of a professional development program for postdoctoral fellows, the establishment of criteria for graduate program evaluation as part of the periodic review process, the creation and institution of a Faculty-wide policy on students in an industrial environment, and, with the help of Jacqui Brinkman from the iCAPTURE Centre, the development and implementation of a mandatory Responsible Conduct of Research course for all biomedical Faculty of Medicine graduate students. I continue to coordinate and teach this 7-hour course, offered three times annually.

I was asked to take up the new position of Associate Dean for Professional Development at the Faculty of Graduate Studies in 2008. My largest responsibilities were to develop and oversee a professional development program for graduate students (now call Graduate Pathways to Success, or GPS) and to implement a blended Research Integrity course. The GPS program has a current uptake of approximately 2500 UBC graduate students annually, and was awarded the 2010/11 UBC Helen McCrae Award for recognition of student service that has had a “significant positive impact on student life and development”. The content, philosophy, and evaluation summaries of the program are outlined in a later section and the appendix.

To make available an online Research Integrity course for the UBC community, I have adapted for the Canadian context the highly regarded American CITI course on the Responsible Conduct of Research, with 9 separate modules for 5 disciplines. A substantial amount of revision was required, which included Canadianization as well as incorporation of extra material on ethics and research in a global context and research with Aboriginals. We have collaborated with the N2 research network to include it in the newly formed “CITI-Canada” portal, funded in part from CIHR operating funds, and to make it available to researchers across Canada. The blended course is anticipated to be piloted this spring. I have also instituted or am planning other initiatives to address the very complex challenge of enhancing research integrity across campus (workshops, seminars, a manual, etc). Included in these initiatives are the development of a Writing with Integrity workshop, which I have been asked to give numerous times across campus.

Graduate Pathways to Success
One of my primary responsibilities in the Faculty of Graduate Studies over the last 2.5 years has been the development and oversight of the Graduate Pathways to Success (GPS) professional development program. I have been ably assisted by Dr. Elizabeth Wallace, hired in 2008 as manager of the program. The program consists of a palette of workshops, courses, discussions and seminars providing a multidimensional enhancement of the graduate education experience. It focuses on developing skills, competencies and ‘habits of heart and mind’ for success in graduate school, effectiveness in academic and non-academic careers, constructive and inclusive leadership capacity, as well as enhanced career building and self-management.
The program evolved from an initiative started in 2003 to provide graduate students with the transferable skills necessary to succeed in graduate school and in their future careers. This was in response, in part, to the shifting career outcomes of graduate students away from traditional academic positions, and a realization that the graduate school curriculum did not adequately prepare students for these careers, or for the full range of activities associated with an academic career. In the same vein, a need for the development of competencies for retention and success within graduate school was also realized and addressed in this early initiative.

After taking on the project in 2008, it has grown approximately 5-fold, became ‘GPS’ in 2009, and in 2010/11 provided or will provide approximately 65 offerings, reaching approximately 2500 graduate student participants and some postdoctoral fellows. The expansion was made possible in part because of a high degree of collaboration within and outside UBC. Relationships were established with many UBC units, including Career Services, The Writing Centre, The Wellness Centre, several units working with international students, and Robson Square Life and Career Centre. A formal agreement was signed with MITACS in 2010 to collaborate in offering 10 workshops annually, with an emphasis on knowledge translation and business skills.

Core programmatic elements include the opportunities for students to develop:

  • transferable skills critical to the variety of careers they will enter: written and oral communication, management, entrepreneurship, self-management, interpersonal skills, and others;
  • competencies and knowledge important in a successful graduate school experience and outcome: developing a productive relationship with one’s supervisor, preparing for the doctoral exam, applying for funding, etc.;
  • an understanding of the careers available to them and the competencies needed to achieve their career goals.

Upon taking on the responsibility of this program, however, we have also enlarged the scope of the program to contribute more fully to what we envision to be the goal of graduate education: nurturing scholars who will make a positive difference in the world. The program considers, for example, the broader attributes and attitudes of global and societal responsibility, integrity, and creativity. Enhancement of these attributes is approached through offerings on topics such as responsible research and writing, inclusivity in leadership, dialogues with leaders who have made a positive difference, and community service learning. Importantly, these values are also embedded and embodied as much as possible in all programming and in interaction with the students.

Student involvement in planning and implementation is of high value, and is exemplified by the following approaches:

  • Each offering is evaluated by participants, and comments about the offering as well as suggestions for additional topics are used to continually assess, improve, and expand programming as appropriate.
  • A student focus group meets with the GPS leadership annually to review the program and discuss unmet needs.
  • A graduate student in a work/study capacity is hired on a continual basis to assist with program implementation, administration and assessment.
  • Graduate students are used where possible and appropriate as facilitators in the offerings.
  • Many offerings have been designed and implemented in collaboration with (and sometimes spearheaded by) numerous graduate student organizations, including GrasPods at the BC Cancer Research Centre, student councils in Education and CfIS, and the UBC Graduate Student Society.

There is broad uptake by Faculties and disciplines across the university, and the overall ratings are very high (with an average rating of the value of events over a recent 10-month period of 4.3 on a 5-point scale). We feel GPS makes a highly positive impact on the academic and life experience of graduate students at UBC, helps prepare them in tangible ways for the careers ahead of them, and affirms and instills an appreciation for the important role graduates can play in advancing a civil society.