Dec. 2, 2020

In memoriam: Helmut (Hal) Wieser, Faculty of Science

Campus flag lowered Dec. 2, 2020

Helmut (Hal) Wieser passed away on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020 at the age of 85 years. Wieser was a passionate teacher and researcher who enjoyed a fulfilling scientific career at the University of Calgary from his appointment in the Department of Chemistry in 1968 to his retirement as professor in 2003. Wieser was awarded Emeritus status on his retirement.

Wieser emigrated from Linz, Austria to Lethbridge, Alta. in September 1954. He started in his new country with Bird Construction. A year later, he moved to Calgary where, as a young 20-year-old, he was taken in by the Walter Boote family in Ogden. They gave Wieser a solid start, referring to him as their “adopted son”. 

He worked in the Boote family’s Ogden service station and later with Imperial Oil. His quest for knowledge pulled him west to the University of British Columbia where he graduated with a BSc in honours chemistry and physics in 1962. Wieser began his PhD graduate program at the University of Calgary working on research in the field of vibrational spectroscopy with his supervisor, Peter Krueger. He defended his thesis in 1966 and joined the University of Calgary as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in 1968. With support from a research fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Wieser was a visiting scientist at the University of Munich, Germany (Prof. W. Kiefer) and Reading, England (Prof. I. Mills). 

Dr. Helmut (Hal) Wieser

Dr. Helmut (Hal) Wieser

Wieser family

Wieser embarked on his research career exploring the nature and origins of vapour phase high-resolution spectroscopy. While engaged in this research, he hit upon the idea that molecular vibrations might be a mechanism for the exchange of information between molecules, which could include the sense of smell in living systems. This was the beginning of an important research direction for Wieser as he explored the nature of pheromones in the insect world. 

In the early 1980s there was a practical urgency to understand the selective interaction between specific pheromones and the mountain pine beetles of southwestern Alberta as forests were devastated by increasing numbers of these insects. As research progressed, a productive collaboration developed among Hal, Dr. Bill Laidlaw and Dr. Lis Dixon. This team worked for many years combining their individual strengths in synthesis, theoretical chemistry, and environmental science to understand pheromone interactions. The group thrived with the enthusiastic participation of scientists from the Alberta government, the B.C. Forest Service, and local timber companies. The generous availability of funding at the time is a testimony of the desire and need for an effective and environmentally friendly method for forest protection.

Vital components of the research included weekly excursions to the hills of southwestern Alberta and the Bugaboo mountain range of southeastern B.C. Postdocs, students, and family members were enlisted to wander the untamed forest test sites, setting beetle traps, collecting and counting beetles while avoiding bears.

Wieser’s research interests evolved into an emerging technique known as vibrational circular dichroism. Very quickly, Wieser , his students and visiting scientists developed the ability to measure this phenomenon in the laboratory. They applied the unique ability of this method to study the effects of metal agents on the structure of DNA. Many capable visiting scientists, postdoctoral scholars and students came to Calgary to work with Wieser in this new frontier.

Among Wieser’s teaching efforts were undergraduate courses in general chemistry for students in the sciences and engineering, chemical instrumentation and senior courses in spectroscopy and analytical methods. He was a passionate and engaging teacher who was motivated by his students’ desire to connect with chemistry and the relevance of chemical phenomena in daily life. 

In 1978, Wieser was awarded a teaching award from the Student's Union to recognize his efforts in the classroom. Wieser often used humour to connect with his students, inspired by the rich stories offered by his experiences as a father and husband. These family jokes came to an abrupt end when his children later attended the University of Calgary and stories of his attempts at comedy made it back home.  

Dr. Wieser in his lab in the 1990s.

Dr. Wieser (right) in his lab in the 1990s.

During his career, Wieser became particularly interested in administrative matters, being drawn into activities related to the welfare of students. In 1977, Wieser was asked to become the graduate co-ordinator and later associate head (graduate studies) in the department responsible for the intellectual and fiscal welfare of students. These were formative years for Wieser as he gained knowledge of the administrative workings of the university as well as matters concerning graduate students. 

In 1993, his experience working with graduate students culminated with his appointment as associate dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, a position he held until his retirement in 2003. Wieser enjoyed this role tremendously because it was an opportunity to work with students to help them achieve their goals as they pursued advanced degrees.

The essence of Wieser’s academic life was to seize upon new opportunities, which led to significant highlights in his career, provided ample material for training graduate students, spawned new insights in exciting phenomena, and helped stimulate further research and contributions by others. Working with students was one of the most rewarding aspects of his career at the University of Calgary. He believed strongly in giving all individuals an opportunity to develop their abilities and skills. Wieser will be remembered for his humanity, his connectedness to nature and the natural world, his positive spirit, and his curiosity.