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Beloved prof and advisor turns 100

Thelma Finlayson is a retired biology instructor from Simon Fraser University who still likes to keep up to date on developments in her field even as she turns 100 years old. She was honoured with a special birthday party at the university on Sunday. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Thelma Finlayson is a retired biology instructor from Simon Fraser University who still likes to keep up to date on developments in her field even as she turns 100 years old. She was honoured with a special birthday party at the university on Sunday.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

Thelma Finlayson's failing grade in scientific German was the best thing that could have happened to thousands of students.

Finlayson didn't let that setback deter her from becoming a distinguished biologist and instructor at Simon Fraser University. But it did colour her job as an academic advisor to troubled students after she retired from the classroom.

On Sunday, friends, family and former colleagues celebrated Finlayson's 100th birthday at a special party held at the Diamond Alumni Centre.

It seemed like a lot of fuss for someone who just wanted to be a biologist, said Finlayson.

Which is pretty much the same argument she used with the professor of her scientific German class when she appealed her substandard grade.

"I'm not interested in German," she said. "I'm a biologist."

The prof let Finlayson carry on with her studies.

In 1937 Finlayson became one of the first female scientists at the federal Department of Agriculture's Belleville Research Institute. Thirty years later she blazed a new trail as the first female faculty member in SFU's Department of Biological Sciences.

But she never forgot her humbling brush with academic failure, and when she became an academic advisor four years after she retired from the classroom, her empathy set thousands of students on the right path.

"That definitely influenced me," said Finlayson. "Most of the students I saw were in trouble, but I enjoyed their ideas. I tried to find something good in their transcripts to give them encouragement."

She also listened.

Often students' academic woes are just the symptom of bigger issues elsewhere in their lives, said Finlayson. Like the male student who told her the next time he'd see her, he'd be a she.

"They just needed somebody to talk to," said Finlayson, who continued to advise students until she was over 95 years old.

In fact, Finalyson was so beloved by the students she counseled, two years ago the school established the Thelma Finlayson Centre for Student Engagement to create a welcoming space for students seeking guidance.

Finlayson's academic specialty was entomology. She researched the larval stages of various forest and agricultural pests and the use of parasites to control them.

And while she hadn't taught in the classroom for decades, she continues to stay abreast of developments in her field. Last year she co-authored a paper that was published in a New Zealand journal.

"I never expected to live as long as I have," said Finlayson. "But I'm grateful for having such a fulfilling life."

 

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