Robert Berdan - Autobiography

Last updated December 13, 2016


Fifty nine years in 10 minutes

I saw light for the first time when I was born in Toronto March 1, 1957. Fifty nine years later,  I am married to a beautiful woman for over 30 years. My wife Donna is an accountant and musician who I met while I was in Grad School in Houston, Texas. I have one son, Brandon who works for the Geek Squad, loves computer gaming, Airsoft and has a faster computer then I do. I have two younger brothers, Frank (banker) and Mike (3D  designer) and an older sister Rosemarie (emergency nurse).

Berdan family picture 2010

My mother and father after my fathers open heart surgery, my brothers Mike, Frank, and myself, my sister was absent - 2010. Today my father is still doing well.

I am outgoing, I like to share my interests with others, and I am also competitive with a Type-A personality - I set my watch 10 minutes fast and usually arrive early to most events. I enjoy helping others succeed and I live and play in and around Calgary, Alberta. I am a proud to be Canadian. I specialize in Science, Nature, and Wildlife photography. One of my life time goals is to visit and photograph as much of Canada as I can. I have visited and photographed many parts of Canada already, but I would like to spend more time exploring the Arctic, Yukon, Newfoundland and the West Coast. My favourite subjects to photograph are the Aurora Borealis, wildlife, landscapes, macro and micro-subjects. I started taking pictures when I was 13 years old and unlike sports where I started to slide backwards when I was 30, I like to think I am still getting better at photography after more then 45 years. I am currently working on a book "The Art of Canadian Nature Photography - Scenic Vistas and Wildlife" I hope to have published in 2017 for Canada's 150th birthday.

Robert Berdan in front of Science photography exhibit photo by Rinus Borgsteed

Exhibit of my photographs featuring "Science & Art" in Calgary. Photo by Rinus Borgsteede.

When I was young, my family moved around as my father took up jobs in different locations including Puerto Rico. My father is a self-taught engineer with numerous patents in plastic injection molding and also enjoys music and photography as hobbies. My mother tends to speak her mind and encouraged me to follow my interests. Most of my earliest years I grew up in Scarborough, a district of Toronto which due to its rapid growth and size did not appeal to me as I tried to avoid street fights. When I was in grade 8 my family moved north to cottage country and we lived between two small towns, Midland and Penetanguishene, Ontario. My grade eight teacher in Midland, Mr Bob Armstrong instilled the importance of preparation and training to be successful academically and in sports. I enjoyed high school in Penetanguishene and one of my high school teachers and badminton coach, Thorpe Lichtenberg became a close friend and mentor.

Mathilde and Karl Berdan in their backyard swimming pool

My mother and father - Mathilde and Karl Berdan in their backyard pool.

Our home outside Midland was surrounded by 100ft tall maple and oak trees and was just 5 minutes walk from Midland Bay. I could see the bay and the sunrise from my bedroom window. 

Home of Robert Berdan Portage Park outside Midland, Ontario

Above photo - my home located half way between Midland and Penetaguishene. I was surrounded by nature and enjoyed living there. Photo by Karl Berdan.

My interest in landscape photography was inspired by a local photographer Budd Watson who had a studio in Midland and used a large format camera (see Tribute to Budd on this site). When I was in high school I loved science and sports. I played basketball, track and field (javelin, high jump and pole vault), ran cross country and played badminton competitively for over 20 years. I was too skinny for football. I retired from badminton competition in my thirties due to injuries but managed to win a few provincial and state badminton championships.

My interest in photography started in high school, and I brought my camera with me almost everywhere as I photographed school sports and my friends. But the main reason I pursued photography was to take pictures through my microscope to share this amazing unseen world with others. I started taking pictures with my microscope using a Polaroid camera like the one on the left.

I received my first microscope for Christmas when I was in Grade 6, living in Toronto. The microscope was from "Sears" department store catalogue and cost $29.95 and it changed my life. In grade 7, I recieved a chemistry set for Christmas and started down a path to becoming a scientist. I graduated from grade eight in Midland and received a Merit award for my grades and my parents purchased a research quality light microscope for me as a graduation present. I still have and use this microscope today (see microscope below left of me).

Robert Berdan science geek in garage laboratory

As a teenager, I had a laboratory in my garage (see above) and I was a science geek. Most folks were indifferent to my photo-micrographs. Today I am still selling some of those pictures that I took over 40 years ago. A single drop of pond water can support millions of tiny organisms that can resemble jewels or alien monsters (see below). It's an amazing universe that most of us never see unless you happen to own and know how to use a microscope.

Freshwater diatoms - silica shells of single cell organisms resemble jewels. Magnification about 400X, Darkfield microscopy.

Fortunately, a close friend of our family, Herbert Thony was a microscope salesman for Olympus and he helped me obtain a professional trinocular microscope. Herb taught me how to focus and use the microscope properly. I am still in touch with Herbert, now retired and in his 90's. You can view some of my photomicrographs in this gallery - see photo-micrographs gallery.


Photomicrograph of section through white pine, magnification about 400X. I see many patterns in nature as art, but to a trained biologist there is a lot of information in this picture about how the molecules are arranged in the wood. It's no concidence I named my company "Science & Art".

When I turned 15, I received a single lens reflex camera for Christmas an Olympus OM-1. There was an adapter for this camera to fit my Olympus microscope. Christmas Day I was out with my camera before sunrise and shot my first roll of Kodachrome. The sun was rising over the ice on Midland bay, so I laid down on the snow to brace myself and took the picture below. Since that day I have been hooked on photography.

Sunrise over Midland Bay 1970 by Robert Berdan

Sunrise over Midland Bay 1970 - I took this photo with an Olmypus OM-1 camera & 50 mm lens on Christmas morning.

When I turned 16, I got lucky and got a summer job as a news paper photographer for the local paper called "The Midland Free Press". The editor (Doug Reed) was sceptical about hiring me - so he gave me three rolls of black and white film and said "show me what you can do". I got the job and was paid $10 per photo. I was taught how to develop film and print in a traditional darkroom. Photographing for the newspaper was a fun. The editor told me "make sure you get their face and name". Later on I got to choose some of the pictures that were published. I subsequently learned colour printing from my father who became interested in photography when I wouldn't lend him my camera for a trip to Cuba. Keith Logan, many years later taught me how to use masks to control contrast when printing from colour slides (Ilfochrome printing). Today I process images in Photoshop and print with Epson inkjet printers on archival paper.

My first published photo - Hog Bay Trestle near Port McNicoll (1908 -1978) - one of the longest structures on the continent made the front page of the Midland Freepress in 1972. Fee paid $10.

During my first three years of University (Science Major) my summer job was as a historic Interpretor for the Naval & Military Establishment in Penetanguishene - and this fun job had me speaking in front of people every day and it spurred my interest in Canadian history (Naval Establishment official web site).

Cananon group Historic Naval and Military Establishment Penetanguishene, Ontario

I was part of the Canon squad at the Naval Establishement - I am at the far right carrying the gunpowder charges, photo by Karl Berdan.

My long term goal was to become a biologist and to have my own laboratory. To achieve this I spent 10 years in university and three more years as a Postdoctoral fellow before I got chance to to have my own lab at the University of Alberta. I think one of my better qualities is "perseverance" which is a quality needed in research.

Aurora Borealis at Calgary Airport - West Jet Terminal by Robert Berdan ©

Large photo of mine at Calgary, Airport - West Jet Terminal. August 2016.

In 1979, I received my Hon B.Sc. in Zoology from the University of Western, in London Ontario. In 1981, I received a Masters in Cell Biology from Western working with Dr. Stan Caveney and Dr. Richard Shivers. After this I moved to Houston, Texas to attend Baylor College of Medicine to work on my Ph.D. degree in Cell Biology with one of the leading Cell Biologists at the time, Dr. Norton Gilula who was editor and chief of the Journal of Cell Biology. After training in Houston, I spent three more years postdoctoral training at the University of Calgary in Neurobiology, with Dr. Andy Bulloch. Finally I started out as an assistant professor at the University of Alberta as a Heritage Research Scholar for 5 years in Edmonton. Since leaving University of Alberta I have been an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary, Dept of Anatomy & Cell Biology, though I have been teaching mostly web programming and Photoshop at local colleges in and around Calgary.

Above my wife Donna would visit me a dinner time. She is sitting at my electro-physiology rig used for recording from isolated brain cells. I often worked until 2 or 3 am. I thank my wife for tolerating my compulsive behavior and the long hours I spent in the lab.

Scanning-electron micrographs of brain cells, an aphid and mosquito proboscis. I loved to play with high-tech "toys" and was able to use photography regularly in my research.

After 5 years working 16-18 hour days, 7 days a week - my son was born 6 weeks prematurely. His birth triggered a change in me, I didn't want to work 7 days a week anymore and I longed to spend time outside the lab. I watched other scientists devote their lives to research and many received little recognition. While I loved research, it was as if my research position took everything I had and left little room for anything else. I came to the conclusion there is more to life than writing grant proposals and working all the time - yet I probably still work too much but I uaully like what I do most of the time.

In 1989, I accepted a position as manager of educational programming at the Calgary Science Center where I initiated several new exhibits such as "CyberSense" that featured computer technology in learning and the Internet. I also began hosting photography exhibits at the Science Centre by National Geographic and other photographers. I started teaching a program on how to use the Internet in 1993 called "Surf the Web" to audiences of 200 or more . While the Science Center job was fun, it wasn't challenging me and in 1996 I left to start my own business "Science & Art Multimedia". To my surprise the Science Center didn't think having a web site was important. While working regular hours at the Science Center I had plenty of time to develop a part-time business and began to spend more time taking photographs again. As the Internet took off so did my new web design business. I also began to teach and develop new courses for local colleges (SAIT, Red Deer College, Olds College). I developed and taught courses on HTML, CSS, Javascript, PHP, XML, Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver and photography for the past 20 years - now I teach mostly privately.

Robert Berdan photographing wild flowers photo by Donna Berdan ©

Here I am photographing some Prairie crocus flowers near my home in Silver Springs, Calgary. Photo by my wife Donna Berdan.

The Internet may be this Century's most significant technological development, it connects people, provides access to an unlimited amount of information and offers online learning and entertainment - its changing everything we do. Anyone can become an online entrepreneur or publisher. The INTERNET however, also has it downside. The pace of technological change is accelerating and it's becoming harder to stay up with many of the new trends and technologies. It can take up a lot of free time, it can send us electronic viruses, and sitting for hours in front of a computer isn't healthy. We are going to see a lot more folks becoming nearsighted as we stare at our screens for many hours a day (today I spent about 12 hours in front of my computer and I have become nearsighted).

Above - Dr. Wayne Lynch and yours truly after climbing a small "mountain" looking for Blue Grouse, we never did see any grouse. I consider Wayne a good friend and mentor. Wayne gave up a career in medicine to become a Wildlife photographer and his productivity in publishing books amazes me and he is truly inspirational. But we both wonder if we might belong to the last group of nature photographers to be able to make a living at it. Some of my other photo buddies include: Hälle Flygare, Peter Dettling, Kamal Varma, George Brybycin, Ahmed Kassim, Dave Lilly, Rinus Borgsteed, Dr. Sharif Galal and my father Karl Berdan. You will find examples of their photography throughout this web site to which I am grateful. Thanks guys!

Robert Berdan photo by Halle Flygare

Knee deep in mud I am trying to get a panoramic photo from within a swamp - I was paid to do this and had fun doing it. Photo by Hälle Flygare.

One of my goals is to share my passion for nature photography with others via this web site and publish a book in the future about Canadian Nature photography. Another personal goal is to become a decent Tenor saxophone player. Why? - I love jazz and blues music and always admired those that can play an instrument well. My wife, Donna enjoys planing piano and singing and I would love to accompany her when I get better. It will take me years and thousands of hours of practice (about 10,000 hrs to become an expert ). I hope I live long enough to become decent. Whoever said "you can't teach an old dog new tricks " is wrong. After 20 months with my sax instructor (Gareth Bane) - I am making progress and since Joining the Westwinds Bronze Jazz band I have had an opportunity to play a few concerts and even played a 12 bar solo over a blues tune called "Blues in the Closet". Progress is slower than I would like but I am improving.

Robert Berdfan in West winds Bronze Jazz Band at Ironwood in Calgary.

I am 2nd from the right in the first row playing Tenor Sax at the Ironwood in Calgary, November 8, 2016. Photo by Alan Hoiland's wife.

As a teacher and as a student I have come to appreciate how important teachers and mentors can be in our lives. I am grateful for the many good teachers I have had. I am also proud to see some of my students become heart surgeons, cancer specialists, web developers and photographers. I am sometimes asked what is my greatest weakness - it's spelling or inaccurate typing and it frustrates the hell out of me!

Robert Berdan in a creek photographing a panorama - self portrait

I am in a creek in Kananaskis taking a panorama, note the bear spray can on my hip just in case of a bear encounter.

Robert Berdan at Twin Falls Gorge meditating by Kamal Varma ©

Photo of me by Kamal Varma - we stopped at Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park on the way to Yellowknife - I usually "meditate" with my camera - this was just a fun shot.

It's said that life is short and yet so far life has been good to me. I have had a few bumps for sure, but the most important things in my life are my family, health and friends and I try my best to let them know how much I appreciate them.

In the future I hope to spend more time taking pictures, updating this web site, making music, and traveling with my wife. I will continue to share my passion for photography and my journeys on this web site for those that might be interested. At the end of this you might think who cares - I don't know, maybe nobody - but this is who I am and where I come from. Thank you for reading.