Meeting the Minds–Jim Sellers

Jim Sellers is the Project Manager for the Athabasca River Basin Research Institute.  He was born in Edmonton and works at Athabasca University.  Here we get to know about another wonderful member of our online community.

To start, what makes you you? Where are you from and what’s your background?

I am a native Edmontonian, which is to say I was born here, moved away and came back a total of 5 times.  I’m here to stay now.  I am the 7th generation in my family to be born in Canada after my predecessors arrived here in the mid-1800s from the north of England.  Exact origins unknown.

I identify as being devoid of any cultural background after being raised on a diet of American television, Disney movies and canned food.  As a result, I have spent a lot of time living other cultures vicariously through food and music.  I have had the good fortune to work with people many different cultures and with First Nations members as well.

As the project manager of the Athabasca River Basin Research Institute (ARBRI), what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

First, a short history.  ARBRI was started in 2008 as an idea.  We are a centre of research and promote an open exchange of information.  With our main campus in Athabasca, AU is also a stakeholder in what happens in and along the Athabasca River Basin.  This is key as the Athabasca travels over 1500 km from Jasper National Park to Lake Athabasca, and feeds a diversity of industries, natural habitats and communities of First Nations People, Metis and rural/urban municipalities.

Our earliest research projects at ARBRI were collaborations between AU faculties, external organizations, non-profit research groups, government and municipalities.  We looked at future growth, environmental and economic sustainability and climate change.

At this stage, I was the control centre for ARBRI, insuring the separate components of the projects were working together, that deadlines were met, budgets kept, and reports filed.  I also setup and facilitated three research conferences called ARBRI DAYS.

I am also responsible for the redesign and maintenance of our website

Since 2013, and most recently at the beginning of this year, ARBRI has been awarded research chair funding, including two Campus Alberta Innovates Program (CAIP) chairs and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Chair for specialized environmental research into water, fish health, and soil/atmospheric modelling.  Each chair has a staff of post-doctorate fellows working on specialized projects.  They are publishing research papers and making presentations at conferences.  I am involved in all of this, from editing and submissions to reporting on ARBRI activities inside and outside the University.

My primary function now is to be the representative and point person for ARBRI, especially with the discussions on AU’s Strategic Plan.  We have a great deal of research happening at ARBRI and we need to share this with the rest of the University and the outside research community.  You will be hearing more about our research activities in the future.

What famous person, past or present, would you like to have lunch with, and why? What would the meal be?

Just one? Okay, Barack Obama, although I already know what he would say so, instead I’ll pick Anthony Bourdain, and I’d let him choose the meal.  It would be memorable no matter what.

Who in your life had the greatest influence on your desire to learn?

My father found himself out of a lifelong career after his craft was replaced by software and young people with computers.  He set out to learn and become educated when most people his age were giving up and working at Walmart.  I figure if he can do it, so can I.  I earned my BPA at 50.

What is the emphasis of the ARBRI? How does this translate into its research?

The Athabasca River is a representation of Alberta.  It’s big, powerful, it provides for a wide diversity of people and provides jobs in practically every industry in the province, from the earliest industries (trapping, mining and coal) to the newest and largest (oilsands, natural gas, forestry, pulp and paper).  It was a gateway to the west for traders and is still a major transportation route for our First Nations.

There are changing influences on the river basin that affect every part of its natural and industrial base, including climate change and a growing population.  There is already a tremendous amount of research and data on the Athabasca but there is a great deal more we don’t know.  This is one of the prime functions of ARBRI.  We have teams analysing stream flows, fish populations, the reclamation of oilsands tailings ponds and municipal waste, as well as environmental modelling to analyse changes in the environment caused by a changing climate.

A second, but equally important tenet of ARBRI is to provide a vehicle for the open exchange of information.  We established the Repository of the Athabasca River Basin ( to facilitate the listing, locating and sharing of data and reports of research focused on the Athabasca River Basin.  To date we have over 36,000 listings with many documents available online.  We are constantly looking to expand this list with new research.

What is the most valuable thing in life to you?

Quality time with family, a beautiful sunrise or sunset caught on camera, playing or listening to music, discovering different places in the world.

What have you given up to go to AU that you regret the most? Was it worth it?

Achieving my degree at AU required the commitment of all my free time to course work and studying.  It was expensive and required putting off many things I would have liked, such as fixing my roof and travelling.

Was it worth it? Absolutely.  When I started in my chosen career 35 years ago, there was no degree in the field, no school that provided the qualifications for the job.  You had a talent, you started at the bottom and worked your way up.  By the 2000s, ironically, I needed a degree to qualify for the job I already had and was in danger of losing.  AU allowed me to get that.

What is the most important lesson in life?

Don’t waste time regretting thigs you can’t change.  Acknowledge it and move on.  Also, learn a musical instrument.

What’s something people don’t know about you?

During my time in the TV business I worked with Joe Pesci, Shari Lewis, Rick Hansen and Richard Donner.  I also ate sushi with Jerry Seinfeld.  He won’t remember me.

If students want to become involved in research at AU, how can they become involved in the research programmes and groups, and teams, at AU?

First thing to do is click on the Research link on the AU website ( to see what opportunities exist.  There is contact information for any questions students may have.

The specialty research being done by ARBRI has attracted post-doctoral fellows from countries around the world—Nepal, China, France, Ghana and the UK—to come to ARBRI and bring their expertise.  This is unique for AU but also a tremendous opportunity for me to work with a variety of skilled individuals.  That’s what makes my job so enjoyable.

How does AU as an online institution have a solid foundation for the 21st century of online education?

Post-secondary education, like almost every other aspect of life, is moving online.  Physical campuses still compete for the kids graduating from high school but most people, especially adults who are working and have families, don’t have the luxury of putting their lives on hold and going to classes.  The greatest potential for growth in this country’s growing knowledge economy is in the adult learners who may have a diploma, may have a bachelor’s degree and want to further their education.  AU provides this opportunity, at least for now until everyone else starts catching up to us.

The Government of Canada has finally changed the rules for Life Long Learning to enable adult learners to access student financing.  That is a major step forward.

AU is a traditional university in every sense except for the buildings.  You have to be working full time supporting a family at home and completing your degree to appreciate how good that feels.

Where has life taken you so far? (travels for pleasure, work, etc.)

I spent 20 years freelancing in the television and film industry.  That took me literally across Canada, from Victoria, Vancouver, and Calgary to Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.  Since starting work at AU, I have been to England, Scotland, NYC and Italy.

What (non-AU) book are you reading now?

I am reading several books for different reasons.  Stephen King’s About Writing, Gale Force by Owen Laukkanen and A Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling.