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Passion for higher learning

From the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian

UWI’s new campus principal is Brian Copeland, professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of West Indies from 2007 to 2015, and head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UWI from 1997 to 2007. He succeeds recently retired Prof Clement Sankat.

In April 2016 he was named pro vice-chancellor and campus principal designate of the UWI St Augustine Campus, the latter role he now holds and which became effective in early September for a period of five years. Prof Copeland’s research interests are in the areas of Digital Electronics, Controls and Steelpan technology, the latter earning him the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in 2008. He was also the joint recipient of the Chaconia Medal Gold as a member of the G-Pan development team in 2007. 

Q: Tell our readers a bit about your early years…for example, family and where you grew up.
A: Born on St Vincent Street, San Fernando, and lived in Cocoyea Village for most of my growing years. Father, “Mack” Copeland, mas bandleader and fireman who ended his career as chief fire officer. Mother, Eudine Copeland, spent all of her working life as a nurse and ended her career as a junior matron at San Fernando General. Both parents were founding members of the Autistic Society of T&T. There were six children in the family (I was number four). Married with two children.

Where did you attain your education (elementary, secondary, and tertiary)? 
Elementary: Cocoyea Village Government.
Secondary: Presentation College, San Fernando. 
Graduated from UWI St Augustine with a BSc in Electrical Engineering in 1978; with an MSc in Electrical Engineering (Control Systems) from the University of Toronto in 1981; and with a PhD in Electrical Engineering (Control Systems) from the University of Southern California in 1990.

What are your ‘principal’ duties at UWI? 
By statute, the principal is “responsible to the vice-chancellor for maintaining and promoting the efficiency and good order” of the campus. This broad mandate includes, inter alia, establishing and getting buy-in on the vision and strategic direction of the campus and the university at large. Doing all possible to move the campus in the agreed strategic direction.

Managing the operation, growth and development of the campus. Maintaining and developing stakeholder relationships for the benefit of the campus and, by extension, the university.

How have things changed for you in your new role at UWI? 
Life is certainly more hectic. More aware of the fact that all that I do and say reflects on the campus, the lives of its staff, and its students. 

Your involvement with the steelpan...your favourite steelband piece.
Involvement began in earnest from doing teaching assistant work in an instrumentation lab that led to the creation of amplified pans in the 1980s. This was motivated by discussion by a Carib Tokyo member (“Tessie” Julien) on the increasing difficulty the band was experiencing in landing gigs. That discussion resulted in the creation of an amplified set of pans for the band. The research was partly funded by Carib Tokyo and was patented. 

Favourite steelpan pieces: Ode to Iris written by Ray Holman and played by the National Steel Symphony Orchestra; Coffee Street by Andy Narell; Curry Tabanca by N&M All Stars; and Brazil by Despers. 

Who has been the biggest influence on your life (outside of your immediate family)?
St Clair King who motivated my interest in innovation-based export-oriented entrepreneurship as a means to ensuring a more robust economy. Prof Ken Julien who provided guidance, by example, on how to treat with the challenges of leadership.

What is your recipe for success? 
Recipe? I have none…I just follow my instincts while navigating the minefield. But if I had to craft one it would be: “Be true to yourself in what you want to do and be patient and persistent, regardless of what others say or do to hinder you. Forgive those detractors and move on with your life…you will be dead for a much much longer time than you will be alive.”

What are some of your career highlights?
• Lectured in Digital Electronics, Microprocessor Systems Design and Control Systems.
• Dean of the Faculty of Engineering 2007 to 2015
• Co-ordinated the Real Time Systems Group, a UWI unit for developing university/industry liaison through impactful R&D Projects. At the RTSG, I was project leader for design and construction of the very first electronic scoreboard at the Queen’s Park Oval. 
• I currently co-ordinate the Steelpan Initiatives Project (SIP) which saw the development and patenting of the G-Pan, a re-engineered form of the traditional steelpan, as well as the Percussive Harmonic instrument (PHI), an electronic form of the traditional steelpan. 
• Convener of the Steelpan Research Centre, UWI, and a former member of the board of directors, Cariri.

Won many prestigious awards:
• First recipient of the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in 2008. 
• Joint recipient of the Chaconia Medal Gold as a member of the G-Pan development team in 2007. 
• Received the Guardian Life Premium Teaching Award in 2002, the BP/AMOCO Fellowship Award for Senior Academic Staff at The UWI, 2001 and; 
• LASPAU/Fulbright scholarship for Doctoral programme at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1987, among others.

What goals do you still have?
I would like to see T&T make strong and positive moves in building a more robustly diverse economy and a vastly improved society while caring for its ecology so as to attain a high level of sustainable development. As principal I will do all that is possible to provide full UWI support to this objective.

What advice would you give to someone contemplating a vocation/career such as yours? 
In specific regard to engineering, mathematics and science, students should, from early in, develop the kind of creativity that leads to local innovation in science and technology. They should spend some time not just cramming for exams, but in developing a real understanding of the underlying concepts—deep learning. Students of every age should be encouraged to explore science themselves.

There is enough information in cyberspace to provide the necessary level of excitement and understanding. Furthermore, young people should be allowed to play a lot more because this is where a lot of the motivation for creating new strategies comes.

They should not be pigeon-holed into one area of expertise at an early age; in this regard, the well-entrenched practice of streaming high school students into sciences, modern studies and the like should stop. Students in high school who are predisposed to science, for example, should be allowed to openly explore the humanities and vice versa. Heavy specialization when done too early stunts growth. 

There is also something to be said about the preparation for real life by ensuring that one becomes usefully proficient in at least one of the vocational or “trade” areas, preferably those certified by the Caribbean Vocational Qualifications (CVQ). This applies even to those students who are more academically inclined, as experience has shown that such activity reinforces understanding. 

Most fulfilling part of what you do?
Working with students and graduates on the MIDIPan/PHI project proved beyond a doubt that this country has the wherewithal to do high-tech designs in Trinidad and Tobago. Furthermore, the project motivated our students to focus more on innovation. One or two have gone on to invent and innovate on their own. 

What are some of the challenges/issues faced in your sector/area of endeavour?
Culture change in a small country will always be a difficult prospect. 

What advice would you give to the young people of T&T?
Think big…you will be surprised at what you can do!

What would you like your legacy to be after your tenure is over as campus principal?
A university that plays a pivotal role in building and sustaining innovation-based export-oriented entrepreneurship for economic growth and stability, providing rock-solid leadership in solving social issues and guiding the development of society, and in ensuring that our descendants benefit from a quality life support ecosystem.

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