McGill recognizes Dr. Frederic Bertley with honorary degree

Dr. Bertley in front of the COSI Museum's sign in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Frederic Bertley

Health researcher and impassioning orator are rarely used together to describe someone with the remarkable professional trajectory that West Island native Dr. Frederic Bertley has had.

Far from being the stereotypical doctor donning a white robe, buried in books and beakers, Bertley is also known for possessing charm that knows no bounds and a unique talent to easily break down complex scientific notions and engage even the most reluctant.

For those reasons and more, he is being awarded an honorary degree from his alma mater, McGill University, as the outstanding Montreal doctor delivered a dose of inspiration in his commencement speech to science graduates this year.

“I’m still emotional about it, it means the world to me,” Bertley said.

His story started with a video game that drained so many batteries he found a way to wire it and plug it into an outlet.

Story continues below advertisement

“Best 10 seconds of my life,” he joked, as he recounted the tale during a TED Talk that had the audience in stitches.

The outlet blowing out was the spark that jolted his father down the stairs to see what had exploded, and the same spark that propelled him onto an unbelievable trajectory.

Bertley would go on to become a doctor of immunology at McGill before earning his post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School.

At Harvard, he worked on developing life-saving DNA vaccines for HIV/AIDS, working internationally in Haiti, Sudan and the Canadian Arctic.

Bertley has even been to the International Space Station — well, sort of.

He visited a replica of the station housed at the space vehicle mock-up facility in the Johnson Space Centre in Houston for his television series QED with Dr. B, broadcast on the United States’ Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

That show has earned him eight Emmy awards.

Affectionately known as Dr. B, he also leads one of America’s top science museums in Columbus, Ohio, the Centre of Science and Industry, also known as COSI.

Under his direction, COSI was awarded the highest honour bestowed to museums in America, the United States National Medal.

Story continues below advertisement

“I think what I enjoy the most with myself and my team and anybody who is in the space, is the fact that we can take something that’s traditionally isolated, or just for a few, and make it accessible to many,” Bertley told Global News. “Just making science exciting, engaging.”

Bertley has received multiple honorary degrees, but this latest one from McGill he says is very special.

The Bertleys have a long history at the university.

His family has more degrees from McGill University combined than any other nuclear family, a total of 11 degrees.

It started with his parents, who both studied and met at the institution.

“Fast forward, they have four kids. I’m the youngest, I like to say I’m the ‘oops baby’s younger brother,'” Bertley joked.

All his siblings attended McGill.

His father he says was the one who advised him to choose McGill over another university he was also accepted into.

“My mom and dad have passed, and to be recognized in this way, I’m humbled,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Dr. Bruce Lennox talks about what makes Dr. Frederic Bertley unique'
Dr. Bruce Lennox talks about what makes Dr. Frederic Bertley unique

The man of many passions loves sports, and played competitive hockey growing up.

Story continues below advertisement

“At one point I thought I was going to play for the Montreal Canadiens,” he said.

He says he wants graduates to know that they too can find success in their lives.

As he gave his commencement speech to graduates at the faculty of science, Bertley’s advice: embrace all your interests.

“You can be a scientist and love basketball. You can be into rap, but be an amazing physicist. If you are passionate about different things, feel comfortable accomplishing and working on those things,” Bertley said.

Most importantly, Dr. B advises: share your love for science.

“That training is invaluable and don’t be scared to show how cool science and the wonders of the universe are to a wider population,” he said.

Who knows, he says, you might the person who sparks someone else’s passion and understanding for the topic.

“By virtue of you connecting with them, not making fun of them, by hearing where they are and then meeting them and explaining stuff to them … you might be that person that’ll get them more excited to understand more about science and as they go to make important decisions, whether it’s take a vaccine or climate science, or how do we solve clean water or poverty or different things…. They may be more open to looking at how science can play a role there,” Bertley said.

Story continues below advertisement

Of course, understanding that an outlet or two might be blown along the way.

Sponsored content