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Mary Anne white

Professor Emerita, Dalhousie University 

 

And - Officer in the Order of Canada - awarded for critical advances to materials chemistry and to scientific outreach in Canada

Photo credit: Milos Tosic, Photographer

Science can be much more than a job: it can be your work and your hobby. So if you can see yourself as a scientist, go for it! 

What do you do?

For more than 35 years, I was a professor of chemistry and physics, and taught in those fields, from first year courses to courses for PhD students. In addition, I ran a research lab, studying how properties of materials change with temperature. Some of my research has been aimed at understanding underlying basics of science, and some has been applied to areas such as energy storage and capture. And bringing science to the public – of all ages – also has been a big part of my life, since I was a student.

 

I am now officially retired, so I don’t teach any more, but I still do research and am still involved in public outreach of science. My research is now focused on energy storage, with an aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as that is one of the most pressing problems in the world today.

Why did you choose this field?

I always liked science and math in school. The logic appealed to me. When I was in high school, my father bought the Time-Life Science book series. The book on Matter had a fold-out periodic table in it. I remember thinking idly “I am going to put this up in my office when I get a job.” That was when I first realized I might become a scientist. Unfortunately, that periodic table had disappeared by the time I was working! But I have a small periodic table in my office, and lots of other nice things on my walls, including awards from scientific societies, honorary degrees, and a certificate to indicate that I am an Officer in the Order of Canada (awarded “for critical advances to materials chemistry and to science outreach in Canada”).

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

"When I first saw the periodic table, I never would have guessed that I would lead a group to solve such a mystery."

 

My research group and I learned something new about an element – boron. It is a common element, number 5 in the periodic table, and yet no one knew what its stable structure was at room temperature. (Like its neighbour carbon, which has the diamond and graphite structures, boron has two main competing structures.) We showed that the more complicated boron structure is the stable one. This was a surprise as nature usually favours simplicity, but we also showed why that structure was more stable. 

Why do you love working in STEM?

"One time I sat beside someone at a conference and we realised that we had published a paper together, but we had never met!"

 

I love the fact that no two days are the same, in what we work on and how we approach it. Sometimes we are toiling away on our own or with our research group, trying to solve a problem. Most days we are consulting by email with other scientists all around the world. There is no barrier to discussing our interests with like-minded scientists, anywhere. I presently have collaborations with scientists in Canada, the USA, Germany, Brazil and Japan. And I love problem solving with a purpose.

Best advice for the next generation

Pick an area that you feel passionate about, and can see yourself being involved in for years, or even decades. Some scientists do move to management after a few years, but many more are in for the long haul. Science can be much more than a job: it can be your work and your hobby. So if you can see yourself making a life as a scientist, go for it! And don’t let people tell you it can’t be done!

Fun fact

At this link, you can read how my house is now a lab: http://soapboxscience.org/my-house-is-now-a-lab-meet-mary-anne-white/