University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

Long-ago handshake inspires natural sciences grad

Daniel Hickey’s meeting years ago with Robert Thirsk fostered his pursuit of higher education
November 14, 2016
University of Calgary alumnus Daniel Hickey, BSc'16, plans to go into law enforcement and explore working as a specialist in cybercrime. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

University of Calgary alumnus Daniel Hickey, BSc'16, plans to go into law enforcement and explore working as a specialist in cybercrime. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

Graduate Daniel Hickey and University of Calgary Chancellor Robert Thirsk chat briefly on the stage during convocation ceremonies in June.

Graduate Daniel Hickey and University of Calgary Chancellor Robert Thirsk chat briefly on the stage during convocation ceremonies in June. 

Daniel Hickey was a starry-eyed little boy when he shook astronaut Robert Thirsk’s hand and chatted about space and stuff. Hickey was keenly interested in space and astronauts; he spent lots of time at the library reading books on his favourite subject, and his parents indulged him with visits to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston and the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

So when the big day came to meet an actual astronaut at the junior high school where his mom worked, he had some questions. Lots of questions.

And the astronaut didn’t disappoint. Says Daniel’s mother, Evelyn Hickey, EdD’13, “Dr. Thirsk was wonderful, patiently taking the time to answer the queries of a little boy and confirming that yes, in fact, he was a real astronaut. And he treated Daniel like a budding scientist.”

Recalls Hickey, “He stuck around after his speech to talk to all these junior high school kids — and me. He took the time to talk to this little guy, and I was absorbed.”

Conversation inspires a young mind

That conversation fuelled the young boy’s interest in space, physics, math and technology — and ultimately, studies at the University of Calgary. In June at convocation, Robert Thirsk, now the university's chancellor, presented Hickey with his Bachelor of Natural Science in geology and physics, and they shook hands again almost two decades later.

Hickey took advantage of the moment. “As we shook hands, I said, ‘I saw you speak when I was in elementary school.’

“It was so fast, I wish I had it recorded to I could listen to it again.”

“I remember him,” Dr. Thirsk says. “I said to him, ‘Oh, thank you very much. You’ve made my day.’”

Chancellor Thirsk: ‘It’s reassuring that our future is in good hands’

Of the thousands of convocation handshakes the chancellor has given, he says a handful of recipients will stop for a few extra seconds to share a moment or a memory. “I’ve wondered whether convocation is too long. But then, as I see future leaders, future social workers, future engineers, future scientists and business people, future astronauts who will one day walk on Mars representing Canada, I’m reassured that it’s not too long.

“It’s a thrill to meet these young people, however briefly. It’s reassuring that our future is in good hands,” he says.

Daniel Hickey’s future combines science and public service. “I want to go into law enforcement,” he says, “with an eventual goal of working in cybercrime.” Right now he’s part of the Military Police Reserve, with eyes on either the Calgary Police Service or the RCMP to ply his trade.

Advice for other students

“Take classes outside of your comfort zone. I started in physics, took Geology 205 and liked it so much I ended up moving toward natural science. And take opportunities where they’re offered — I regret not taking a summer to study photography abroad.”

Hickey took several photography classes at university, and he continues as an avid hobbyist. “That would be the only reason I’d like to be in space,” he says. “The only reason I’d be an astronaut is to go and take pictures in space.”