The Best and the Brightest: Maclean's 25 University Stars
PLACE A CALL to Obi Griffith's cellphone, and the message is more than direct: "Hey, this is Obi. Please leave a message. If you don't have anything to say, hang up now. Thanks." No doubt about it, Griffith is a guy in a hurry - a hurry to cure cancer, that is. "Or at least play a part in it," says the 26-year-old whiz kid, calling during a break at the annual Biology of Genomes conference on Long Island, N.Y., last week. "Making even a tiny contribution would really please me."
And if past perfomance is a decent predictor of what's to come, there's every reason to believe that Griffith could fulfill his dream. Last spring, he played a key role on a national scientific team that made headlines by cracking the genetic code for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Now, just months into his doctoral work in medical genetics at the University of British Columbia, he's already working on a scientific manuscript, the kernel of which he presented at the conference last week. His supervisor, Steven Jones, head of bioinformatics at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre in Vancouver, says of Griffith: "Obi's out of the gate pretty fast - a very focused individual who's almost impatient to get on with his research."
And who would expect less from a young man whose namesake is Obi-Wan Kenobi, the legendary Jedi knight? Focused. Curious. Brilliant. These are just some of the characteristics that define Griffith and the 24 other remarkable Canadians selected for this Maclean's special report, "The Best and the Brightest." For the first time ever, we asked universities across the country to nominate their young stars - current students and recent grads, all under the age of 30. From more than 400 names, these individuals were chosen. All are using their considerable talent, brainpower and, yes, compassion, to make this world a better place: fighting disease, poverty, legal inequities and much more. All are dreaming large. At a time when so much news is deeply disheartening, these young Canadians are a welcome reminder that there is still reason for optimism on this weary planet, and promise yet to come.
Dominic Allain: 27, Children's Health Advocate
Have the nagging suspicion you're not doing enough with your life? Dominic Allain will likely add to your doubts. The Dieppe, N.B., native is a first-year medical resident, specializing in pediatrics, at the Stollery Children's Hospital, part of the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. While pursuing an undergrad degree at the University of Ottawa and attending medical school at Dalhousie University, Allain found time to, among other things, work in a clinic on a Mi'kmaq reserve, help found a students' society aimed at promoting health outreach projects in Third World countries, and travel to Gambia, Guatemala and Cuba to attend to the underprivileged and afflicted, including HIV/AIDs patients. Oh yes, and in his spare time, this avid soccer player, snowboarder and rollerblader manages to coach kids' soccer.
Allain credits his parents, both sociology professors at Université de Moncton, with instilling in him a commitment to social justice. "Helping underprivileged people is something I've always been interested in," he says. "Medicine gives me the chance to do that." Allain chose his current residency program because it encourages students to take electives abroad and draws a large number of Aboriginal patients from northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Long-range, Allain plans to practise pediatrics in Canada, while spending part of each year in the Far North and overseas. "There will always be a huge need to help sick children around the world," he says. "That's what drives me."
Mathieu Houde: 27, Cell Biologist
Mathieu Houde is patiently dumbing it down for a scientifically challenged visitor. The bright green blobs on his computer screen are macrophages, the human immune system's first line of defence. The red "hot spots" are the discovery that has the potential to revolutionize how we combat everything from herpes to cancer.
Houde, a Ph.D. student in pathology and cell biology at the Université de Montréal, is the principal author of a groundbreaking study published last fall in the journal Nature. Working with their professor, Michel Desjardins, Houde and his colleagues unravelled the secret of how our bodies fight infections, parasites and mutations. Scientists knew that macrophages, which "eat" bacteria and other pathogens, also stimulate the production of T-lymphocyte cells, which attack and kill the invader. But by mapping the digestive process, Desjardins' team was able to establish just how that cellular machinery works. As pathogens are broken down, fractions of proteins - peptides - make their way to the surface of the macrophage. The immune system recognizes the specific peptide sequence and dispatches the appropriate type of T-cell to repel the hordes.
This process is up to 10,000 times more efficient than what was understood in the past. Having identified the triggers, scientists can now look for ways to turn on the immune system at will. Houde and his team are investigating the use of microscopic latex beads coated with peptides to stimulate the lymphocytes.
It's a huge way to begin a career, and Houde, who heads to the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden this winter to start post-doctorate research, is determined to build on his success. Not bad for a guy who didn't have the marks for med school. "Doctors just put treatments into effect," he says with a grin. "Research is what medicine is built on."
Erin Jessee: 24, Forensic Researcher
Upbeat and outdoorsy, Kelowna-born Erin Jessee hadn't planned on a career investigating mass graves. She'd enrolled at the University of Victoria to study anthropology and Eastern philosophy. But when a few courses in archaeology captured her interest, she switched to Simon Fraser University. There, in the work of renowned forensic anthropologist Mark Skinner - who has exhumed evidence of mass murder in wartorn regions around the world - she found a fit with her interest in human rights and humanitarian law. Jessee sped through a master's degree, completing a thesis last fall on plans for an experimental mass grave using pig carcasses to measure the amount of forensic information that can be retrieved using various exhumation techniques.
Jessee plans to pursue a doctorate, and hopes to work overseas to create international standards for grave investigations. "When dealing with genocide, crimes against humanity, it's extremely important we do a good job," she says. "We may only get one chance in court." Closer to home, she was part of the team combing for evidence at the Port Coquitlam farm of Robert Pickton, who faces 22 murder charges. The more difficult such work is, she says, the greater is the need to put aside feelings in the hunt for justice. "You have to step back and let the evidence do the work for you, without colouring it with your own emotions."
Janay MacNaughton: 24, Physicist
Janay MacNaughton feels she is in the right place at precisely the right time. The young physicist is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Saskatchewan, doing groundbreaking research using a synchrotron - a giant particle accelerator that turns electrons into light, allowing scientists to peer into the atomic structure of samples narrower than a human hair. Currently doing her research in Berkeley, Calif., MacNaughton will soon take advantage of the $174-million Canadian Light Source set to open at the University of Saskatchewan this fall. The chance to work at Canada's first synchrotron is what brought the University of Lethbridge graduate to Saskatoon." People will come here from all over the world to find out unique information," says MacNaughton." To be part of that is very exciting."
MacNaughton's research is attempting to understand the conductivity in DNA, to help determine if it could be used in the production of nanochips. If possible, it would have huge implications in the field of nanotechnology, helping to develop faster, more productive circuit boards, computers and other electronic equipment. "Every scientist would like to find something new," she says."I feel I have the chance to do that."
Mercedes Stephenson: 23, Military Analyst
To her frequent chagrin, Mercedes Stephenson looks even younger than her years. "I'm constantly being asked for ID," she says as she picks away at a Greek salad. But a glance at her resumé and a lunchtime conversation quickly reveal that Stephenson is a very old soul indeed. A master's student at the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, Stephenson is doing her thesis on nuclear proliferation and missile defence systems. Among other things, she has studied economics and media ethics at Washington's Georgetown University, worked as a broadcast journalist for Soldiers Radio and Television at the Pentagon, and is currently on a four-month stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies. She has also served as an analyst for CBC, CTV and Global News on breaking stories, including the killing of the Hussein brothers and the later capture of their notorious father.
Stephenson was always precocious. She started watching TV news at age 5 and recalls being obsessed by the first Gulf War, when she was all of 9. Her instincts were initially anti-military, a viewpoint that changed after visiting NORAD headquarters in Colorado in 2000, where she learned more about the threats posed by terrorists and rogue states. The events of 9/11 reinforced her conviction that a nation's primary duty is to ensure the safety of its citizens.
Stephenson believes Canadians are far too complacent about military and strategic affairs. While she doesn't know where her studies will ultimately take her - to academia, journalism or a role with an NGO - she's certain of one thing. "I want to make a difference," she says. "I want to make Canada more secure. How do I go about doing that? We'll find out."
Michelle Dagnino: 23, Youth Activist
It's a typical high school experience. "I felt my girlfriends were slipping away," says Michelle Dagnino - slipping, that is, into a world that revolved around boyfriends and beauty secrets. Rather than "fall into that trap," the Victoria native took action. She started Aspire, a mentorship program whose roster of guest speakers included, among other prominent women, the late author Carol Shields. With Aspire, Dagnino also launched a career in making the world a better place.
That was seven years ago, when she was in Grade 10. Today, the first-year student at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School laughs easily at herself during an interview near the Toronto office of Youth Action Network, a national social justice organization where she works part-time. The group helps young people organize conferences, produce videos and write articles, among other things. Reflecting on her so-called early days is "always funny," she says, "because I'm 23, right?" But get Dagnino talking about the things she's done - kick-starting an annual anti-racism conference for youth, or speaking to governments around the world as the first envoy on child labour for the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions - and the passion of her views can't be missed.
Law school has further broadened Dagnino's focus. She's using an Ontario Genomics Institute fellowship to research gene patents and the regulation of biotechnology. But ultimately, she sees her degree as a way to maximize her impact as an activist. "I want to stand outside of government - to be a thorn in its side."
For now, Dagnino is concentrating on teenaged girls. "I am troubled," she says, "when I hear them say the glass ceiling is broken." If you look at pop culture, she adds, "women are always accessories." She hopes a series of workshops she's orchestrating around the messages that hip hop sends to girls - for which she was recently named a YWCA Young Woman of Distinction - will inspire "young people to think." Meanwhile, Dagnino recently learned that Aspire continues to run. "So many times you start a project and it's your baby," she says. "To think it's still going on - that's the coolest thing ever."
Jeff Biernaskie: 28, Neuroscientist
Using five dozen rats and more M&Ms than he can remember, Jeff Biernaskie has made a mark in stroke research in recent years. Biernaskie, who graduated with a Ph.D. from Memorial University's faculty of medicine last year, focused his research on the functional recovery of rats following a stroke. His testing included a specially designed feeding box that prevented the rats from using their good paw to reach for the candy. "They wanted the chocolate so desperately they forced themselves to use their bad paw," says Biernaskie, 28, whose work was published in the Journal of Neuroscience and earned him a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Brain Star Award in 2002. "Tests showed rats that underwent rehab recovered 40 per cent better than those that didn't receive any therapy. The rehab also resulted in positive structural changes in the brain."
In related work, Biernaskie focused on the proper timing of rehabilitation. "We wanted to find an optimum period to start therapy," says the young scientist, whose work comparing rats that underwent therapy after five, 14 and 30 days following a stroke was also published in the Journal of Neuroscience last February. "Some research has indicated it's dangerous to start as early as we did, but we found starting after five days was best."
Biernaskie - who did his undergrad degree at the University of Lethbridge, in his hometown - hopes his findings spark a similar study in humans. Ultimately, he wants to create a more standard guideline for rehab. "It's hard to improve that much after a major stroke," says Biernaskie, who has switched focus to stem-cell research and works in a third-floor lab at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. "That's why I'm doing work with stem-cell transplants. We really need a combination therapy to improve the quality of life for patients. That's when we'll begin to see some real change in recovery."
Kristinn Frederickson: 25, Biosystems Engineer
Kristinn Frederickson shrugs and laughs when asked how he feels about being a role model. "I never get used to it," says the young Metis from Stonewall, Man., who is currently a master's student in biosystems engineering at the University of Manitoba. In addition to his thesis project - an ambitious effort to improve water quality in several remote Aboriginal communities - Frederickson frequently visits high schools, career fairs and reserves to talk to Native youth about the importance of higher education. "I'm not there to impress other people," he says. "I'm trying to be successful for myself - and if others can be inspired by that, then that's excellent."
As a top-flight student at Stonewall Collegiate, Frederickson was always attracted to the sciences, a field in which Aboriginals remain sorely under-represented. But he found first-year engineering too dry and impersonal and his grades plummeted. Frederickson rebounded by choosing to specialize in biosystems engineering, which allowed him to apply scientific principles to a variety of real-life problems. As an undergraduate, he surveyed wastewater treatment facilities on 62 Manitoba reserves, finding 75 per cent of them substandard. Now, he's focused on bringing technological solutions to those communities.
Frederickson's work has taken him to far-flung reserves, which is exactly where he wants to be. "I'm not a pure scientist by any stretch of the imagination," he says. "I'm about seeing results." While he plans to pursue a Ph.D. and seek an academic posting, Frederickson expects to always spend a lot of time in the field. "My passion is for improving community life," he says. "You don't do that by sitting in an ivory tower."
Raji Mangat: 29, Lawyer
The events that inspired Raji Mangat to become a lawyer took place more than five decades ago: the 1947 partition of the Asian subcontinent into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim Pakistan, which caused massive rioting and refugee flows. The worst violence was over the division of Punjab - forcing Mangat's mother's family to relocate from a village on the Pakistan side of the new border to India. But after her parents immigrated to Grand Prairie, Alta., in the early 1970s, all that was rarely mentioned. Mangat says she grew up "quiet and geeky, learning to speak Punjabi and Hindi, but knowing little about the traumatic history her parents had lived through.
That was left for her to explore as a university student: studying for her master's at Carleton, she researched the plight of women during the partition. Says Mangat: "I discovered that both India and Pakistan enacted legislation to govern the trading back and forth of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim women, regardless of whether they wished to be returned to their families. Only when I began to probe this did I realize the transformative potential of law."
That led her to law at the University of Victoria. A star graduate, she has worked for Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci as a clerk for the past year - a big honour for a newly minted lawyer. Says Mangat: "It has really opened my mind to different areas of law." Whatever her future, Mangat carries a notion of justice rooted in an appreciation for the lessons of the past.
Jennifer Adams: 29, Geologist
The daughter of a biomedical engineer and granddaughter of a prominent geologist, Jennifer Adams comes by her love of science honestly. She is also an avid hiker, skier and canoeist. After high school, Adams aimed to combine these passions. "I knew geologists got to go into the field," she says. "I thought it would be fun."
It didn't quite work as planned. By the time the Ottawa-raised Adams finished her undergrad degree, funding for field research had largely dried up. Not that she's complaining. Adams is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in geology at the University of Calgary, backed by one of the prestigious new NSERC Canadian Graduate Scholarships, worth $70,000 over two years, and a five-year grant from the Alberta Ingenuity Fund. Her research promises to shed new light on how microbes progressively degrade oil deposits, making them denser and difficult to extract. Ultimately, her research should help companies exploring such unconventional oil sources as the massive tar sands near Fort McMurray, Alta., to identify where the least degraded oil exists, making recovery more cost-effective. "I play on the computer," says Adams. "And by playing, I can see how it might work in the real world - which really appeals to me."
Julielynn Wong: 29, Medical Researcher
Malaria stalks 40 per cent of the world's population - 2.5 billion people - and kills about 3,000 victims a day. In fact, there are more acute cases of malaria each year than tuberculosis, AIDS, measles and leprosy combined. "It's a preventable and treatable disease," says Julielynn Wong, a third-year medical student at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "But despite control efforts, there has been a resurgence in recent years." In 2002, Wong - who has garnered more than 10 academic awards, totalling almost $55,000 - attended the International Space University in Pomona, Calif. Wong was the lone medical student in a group of 53 peers from 20 countries who collaborated on a project called HI-STAR - which stands for Health Improvements through Space Technologies and Resources. Their idea: malaria could be squelched by using telecommunication satellites to relay data on the disease, global positioning systems to correlate cases with their exact location, and remote-sensing equipment to track rainfall and humidity that affects mosquito breeding.
Last year, Wong and a fellow ISU student presented the idea in Vienna to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Wong continued her research into HI-STAR last summer under NASA's Healthy Planet program, showcasing the project at a number of conferences in Germany last fall. Now, the UN's Office of Outer Space Affairs has endorsed HI-STAR, and the European Space Agency has asked to see a proposal for a pilot project. "It's hard to say what motivates me to help other people," says the Toronto native, recently nominated for the Canadian Medical Association award for excellence in health promotion. "I just feel that when you give of yourself, you always get back so much more."
Mark Schaan: 25, Civic Reformer
The Shrove Tuesday sermon at Oxford University's New College Chapel was not the usual fare this year. The guest preacher, a Mennonite, urged others to view Lent as a time not of self-sacrifice, but of self-love. That's the sort of unconventional thinking that Mark Schaan, a Winnipeg-born Rhodes Scholar, brings to his political activism. Says Schaan:"I love the opportunity to put together a thought that's complex."
That might make him a perfect fit for academia. And Schaan does plan to stretch his master's research on welfare-to-work programs into an Oxford doctorate, aiming to develop an approach to social policy that "bridges" the worlds of lobbyists and pundits. But he won't, he says, "get sucked into" the ivory tower for good. "I need to be affecting the communities I care about."
That's something he's been doing for years now. A "loyal Tory" from the age of 13, his blue stripes quickly faded when he moved to Ontario to take political science at the University of Waterloo. It was 1997, the height of Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution. As president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, Schaan spearheaded the battle against tuition hikes and privatization. His efforts paid off when the government included some OUSA recommendations in its act permitting private universities. On his home turf, he persuaded five young Bloc Québécois MPs to meet with campus federalists, initiating debate on unity issues.
It's not clear any party will get a piece of him when he returns to Canada - he's thinking more along the lines of journalism, the civil service or working for an NGO. Still, he's not one to stand on the sidelines. "Mark isn't just about talking about change," says Clark Hortsing-Perna, CEO of the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation, which chose Schaan as a 1997 recipient. "He's about doing it."
Erin Walton: 25, Planetary Geologist
There are only about three dozen scientists in the world, give or take, who are versed in Martian meteorites. To an outsider, that might suggest limited job prospects for a promising young geologist with a passion for the red planet, but Erin Walton knows better. The doctoral candidate in geology at the University of New Brunswick's Planetary and Space Science Centre in Fredericton points out that there are plans to send a mission to Mars every two years over the next two decades. "Mars is where it's at right now," says Walton. "There's a huge drive toward exploration within the international community. Without a doubt, eventually, there will be people on Mars."
Walton, who grew up in the Fredericton area, studies how bits of Mars are thrust into space by comets or meteorites that slam into the planet with a force equivalent to many millions of tons of TNT. There are just 30 meteorites on Earth known to have come from Mars. Walton has examined rare samples recovered from Morocco, Libya, Nigeria, California and Antarctica for clues to their age, mineral composition and the violent forces that landed them here. This research has earned her recognition from the Canadian Space Agency, which this year awarded her $14,000 to supplement a $42,000 scholarship from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council. With the CSA designing a Mars mission for 2011, Walton isn't worried about her future. "There are going to be a lot of opportunities." You might say the sky's the limit.
Obi Griffith: 26, Medical Researcher
Obi Griffith - short for Obi-Wan Kenobi Griffith, which his father favoured but his mother vetoed - has agreed to show up at the busy entrance of the B.C. Cancer Agency in Vancouver. He stands there, burdened by the universal student backpack, knowing well the pain and fear that preoccupies many of those brushing past him to their morning appointments. These people inspire him, he says later, nursing a coffee. "I didn't used to feel that way."
Griffith is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in the University of British Columbia's department of medical genetics. His research - supervised by Steven Jones, head of bioinformatics at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, a part of the cancer agency - aims to identify those genes with the potential to malfunction and cause cancer. He hopes his work will provide a tool for diagnosis and treatment. Already his specialty in bioinformatics has yielded exciting results. Last spring - working almost 40 hours straight fuelled by junk food and coffee - he was part of a national scientific team that made the genome centre the first lab in the world to crack the genetic code for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Since last August, in a stellar example of applied genetics, Griffith's former job as a sequence finisher at the centre has been filled by his fraternal twin brother Malachi. "I got the opportunity to work on the SARS virus, and right now he's working on the avian flu virus," Obi says. The twins graduated with honours in biology and biochemistry from the University of Winnipeg. Both plan careers in genetic cancer research. This fall, Malachi enters the same Ph.D. program as his twin. "It's kind of uncanny, actually," says Obi.
It' no less strange that Obi finds himself a cancer researcher. It was a science too painful to contemplate after their mother, Rhéa, died of breast cancer the year the twins graduated from high school in Beausejour, Man. The loss left Obi "cynical" about the value of medical research. "It didn't really help her out," he says. "I was not really very positive about coming up with a cancer cure, or whether it should be attempted." Then two other family members were saved by cancer therapies, and Obi set aside his pain to commit to finding a cure. "Maybe, eventually, we'll be able to save everyone from cancer," he says. "The more I started to think about it, the more I realized I'd like to be part of that."
Adrian Chan: 28, Biomedical Engineer
Research proposal: find out what was in the water in the Waterloo, Ont., neighbourhood where Adrian Chan grew up. Carleton University's rising star is one of seven siblings - six of whom will soon have earned MDs or Ph.D.s. The soft-spoken scientist laughs when asked if his parents drove their brood to excel. "For some reason, we were quite well-behaved," he chuckles. "It was a matter of respecting your parents because, you know, they're your parents."
Even in this family of stellar achievers, Chan's accomplishments are remarkable. He's an international award-winner in biomedical engineering, the cutting edge combination of high-tech and health. Chan works on decoding the tiny electrical signals muscles make. One use he's exploring: prosthetic limbs that move according to the signals from the muscles they are attached to. Another: by attaching sensors over the face and throat muscles that form words, scientists can detect what a person is saying through mouth movement - in a form of indirect lip-reading - even in a noisy jet cockpit.
The soft-spoken scientist gets excited talking about the research lab he's setting up at Carleton, with more than $400,000 in new federal and provincial funding. But he gets even more excited chatting about another passion - working for the Shad Valley program that brings top high school students to Canadian university campuses every summer for intensive learning about science and entrepreneurship. "I end up exhausted, but inspired," Chan says. "Those are the real leaders of tomorrow."
Ben Perrin: 25, Activist
Ben Perrin knows he can't stop human trafficking in Cambodia - but it's worth trying. "When our grandparents were in their 20s, they were fighting Nazi Germany," says Perrin, the executive director of Future Group, a Calgary-based non-profit organization committed to helping victims of international human trafficking. "This is one of my generation's challenges and I'm not willing to sit back."
Since its inception four years ago, Perrin has been the guiding force behind Future Group. So far, it has reached about 70,000 children in Cambodia, educating them on the risks of human trafficking. One aspect is helping children memorize their last names and addresses. "Many kids don't know these things," says Perrin, who created activity books to make learning fun. "I met a nine-year-old girl who had been saved from the sex trade but didn't know what village she was from or her parent's last name. She had no hope of going home. It was heartbreaking."
Perrin and his team are also committed to going after the predators. They've set up a Web site (www.youwillbecaught.com), and created pamphlets to inform foreigners about the pain the sex trade causes children. Earlier this year, Perrin's team played a role in the capture of a Westerner who eventually pled guilty to having sexual contact with minors in Cambodia. "We're only talking about one pedophile," says Perrin, now studying law at the University of Toronto. "It's sad a small group of twentysomethings from Canada with an annual budget of $25,000 are leading the charge on this issue. We just can't wait for government action. The need is too great."
Kat Kinch: 25, Legal Advocate
Kat Kinch was in kindergarten in Warkworth, Ont., when the equality provision of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force in 1985. "My knowledge," she says with a laugh, "was not very strong at the time."
That changed after Kinch graduated from McMaster University and enrolled in law at the University of British Columbia. Part of law's appeal - especially what she sees as the underused potential of constitutional equality guarantees - is the opportunity to apply her studies beyond the lecture hall. Kinch won the law faculty's award for the best all-round graduating student this March, while juggling a daunting load of outside projects. She helped research a handbook for lawyers and girls on the new Youth Criminal Justice Act and served on a working group looking at the human rights interests of single mothers on social assistance. As well, she co-authored a report on prostitution laws, concluding that they endanger sex trade workers and violate their constitutional rights.
This fall, Kinch starts as a law clerk at the B.C. Supreme Court before articling with a Vancouver litigation firm. She's anticipating her first constitutional challenge. To her, the Charter is a commitment to a better country. When the standard falls short of that ideal, she says with a judge-charming grin, "Time to get working on it."
Karlee Silver: 24, Immunology
Winnipeg native Karlee Silver says it was definitely her first love - rowing - that sparked her interest in biochemistry. "Training myself to function a certain way really got me thinking about how the human body works," says the University of Winnipeg graduate. A five-time recipient of Manitoba's Order of Sport Excellence and a Rhodes Scholar, Silver now spends her days in an immunology lab at Oxford, working towards her doctorate - and a better understanding of the factors that lead to a breakdown of the immune system. "The problem-solving aspect of it really appeals to me," says Silver. "There are days when you look at the test tubes and ask, 'How does this fit in?' But other times, looking at your results, you think, 'Hey, I'm the first one to see this and it might actually be fairly important.' "
Michael Spanner: 27, Laser Physicist
Today's ultra-fast lasers are a bit like early photography, explains Michael Spanner, a Ph.D. physics student at the University of Waterloo. As early advances quickened shutter speeds, it became possible to freeze a galloping horse in mid-stride. Similarly, lasers are now so fast it's possible to visualize how molecules move, vibrate and interact. Spanner, a native of North Bay, Ont., employs laser pulses in the femtosecond range - bursts of light that last a mere 0.0000000000000001 seconds. Industries that depend heavily on the subtleties of chemistry - say, pharmaceutical firms - are deeply interested.
Taking laser technology a step further, Spanner also studies how these intense light beams can be used to move and alter molecules and atoms. That sort of über-dexterity could be exploited to accelerate a chemical reaction, or fashion molecules and atoms into the circuits required for quantum computers, which the military thinks can be used to break impenetrable encryption codes.
To date, Spanner has published at least 20 papers, including one on his own - an accomplishment that he's parlayed into plans for a post-doc at the University of Toronto. What's his publishing prowess mean to him? "Not much," Spanner responds with a hearty laugh. "I do physics because it's fun."
James Milner: 29, Refugee Advocate
When James Milner earns his doctorate in development studies from Oxford next year, he could easily land a cushy tenure-track gig at a top university and coast comfortably through life. But that wouldn't be his style. "If I want to speak with any authority on the hardships refugees face, I need to spend time with them," says Milner, who recently returned from five weeks of field work in Tanzania and Kenya. "Their experience is vital to my research and is a source of inspiration."
Backed by a B.A. in peace and conflict studies from the University of Toronto and a master's from Oxford, Milner was selected by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation for one of its prestigious humanities and social science awards last year. He's using his grant to support his research at Oxford, which is focused on the protection of refugees. Although he's a proven scholar, Milner's non-academic credentials are most impressive. He has been a consultant with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, helping in the resettling of dozens of families around the world. As well, he has written two chapters in the UNHCR's Resettlement Handbook, and is an adviser to the U.K. Home Office and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. "It's rewarding when I get to see life restarting for refugees in a new country," says Milner, recently named a visiting scholar at York University. "Of course I also receive phone calls and e-mails from refugees I've met who have fallen through the cracks and still face serious economic hardship. It's very disheartening, but it's the reason I continue searching for solutions."
Milner's introduction to the plight of refugees came during a church mission to Malawi in 1992. "I understood for the first time what it meant to say I was a Christian and what it meant to have a relationship with God," says Milner, who spent that summer distributing food during a deadly drought. "I discovered this is how I can quietly make a difference for some of the world's greatest victims. This work is a form of worship for me."
Alexandra Conliffe: 24, Engineer
As clubs go, it's rather select: members include such eminent Canadians as neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and former governor general Roland Michener. Now Alexandra Conliffe is set to join the elite ranks of Rhodes Scholars. This fall, the Ottawa native will head to Oxford to start her master's studies in environmental change and forced migration. A founder of the McGill chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Conliffe has already worked on developing water resources in Uzbekistan, and has taught English in two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. With big ambitions to help find solutions to the world's looming crises, the soon-to-be graduate of McGill engineering is focused on the road ahead. "I see where there are problems," says Conliffe. "What I'm trying to do now is acquire the tools to address those issues."
Pascale Fournier: 29, Women's Rights Advocate
When the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation created its prestigious humanities and social science awards last year, one of the 12 Canadians named a Trudeau Scholar was Pascale Fournier. Her application was "stunning," says Peter Sahlas, the foundation's executive program director - and obviously her topic "is very hot." With a grant of up to $200,000 over four years, Fournier is now doing her doctorate at Harvard University. Her focus: reconciling the cultural practices of Muslims with the equality rights of women.
The Quebec City native is in high demand: having just returned from a two-week lecture tour in Italy, she was also a visiting professor at the Institute for Women's Studies & Research in Tehran this year.
Folks at home are keen to get a piece of her as well. Fournier, who has worked as a law clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada and polished off two master's degrees in the seven years since she graduated from law school at Université Laval, has been asked by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and a Quebec women's rights group to write an official report opposing an initiative by the Canadian Society of Muslims to set up a family law court based on shariah law. And while she completes her dissertation, she will be teaching a course on Muslim women's rights at McGill in the upcoming academic year. Ultimately, says Fournier, "I want to have the authority to make people listen. I think I'm getting there."
Nurjahan Akhlaq: 24, Filmmaker
Akhlaq was just 13 when she saw her first art-house film. She discovered a video of Europa, Lars von Trier's bleak portrayal of post-war Germany, and watched it over and over again. "I don't think I grasped what it was about," she now says. "Something about the mood struck me" - and gave her a taste of how powerful moving images can be. Still, the daughter of two renowned Pakistani artists - painter Zahoor ul Akhlaq and potter Sheherezade Alam - spent her teens assuming she would become a psychologist or anthropologist. She says: "I wanted to be different."
The artist, however, could not be denied - especially after 1999. That year, her father and older sister were murdered in the family's Lahore home, which they had maintained after emigrating to Toronto in 1993. After taking a year off, during which, she says, "I felt at a loss for how to articulate my grief," Akhlaq began studying film at Concordia University. There, she produced Flight, a haunting, painterly exploration of the tragedy that won best student documentary at the Montreal World Film Festival last September. She parlayed that success into a Canada Council grant and is now reworking the film, preparing it for the international festival circuit. According to Catherine MacKenzie, chair of Concordia's School of Cinema, Akhlaq's talent lies in her ability to create a "sequence of almost abstract images of movement and colour, while still telling a story." That determination "to say what she has to say in exactly the way she wants to," MacKenzie adds, "will serve her very well in the future."
Aaron Barkhouse: 22, Energy Researcher
Modesty wedded to a keen appreciation of science's unpredictability would prevent Aaron Barkhouse from ever describing his lab work as potentially world-altering. That said, it is possible his search for clean energy could someday have a profound impact. Barkhouse, a Rhodes Scholar, moves in an arcane world of power and plastics, searching for low-cost, easy-to-use materials with which to build solar panels. It's early yet, cautions the native of Lawrencetown, N.S.. While plastic solar cells already exist, they remain disappointingly inefficient. Barkhouse wants to change that, and envisions a day when electric cars and solar-powered homes are the norm. "Both seem to be at the fringes of the market," says Barkhouse, "but I'd like to see them go from a novelty to a realistic option."
A high-school science project on hydrogen fuel cells piqued Barkhouse's passion in alternative energy and eventually led him to an honours degree in physics from Dalhousie University. Along the way he posted a stunning 4.22 grade point average (out of 4.3) during his four undergraduate years, putting him at the top of his graduating class and earning him the Governor General's prestigious Silver Medal. In his spare time, Barkhouse played varsity soccer and captained Nova Scotia's team in the 2001 Canada Games. He has continued to play at Oxford, where he is in his first year of a Ph.D. But it hasn't all been easy. "I wasn't a big fan of the food at first," he admits. "It was all pub-style, deep-fried everything." Fortunately for us, his taste for physics remains insatiable.
Felix-Antoine Boudreault: 26, Civic-Minded Engineer
Félix-Antoine Boudreault is talking about building bridges, both real and metaphorical, with a missionary zeal. "When people thank you because you're building something that will make their life better, it's amazing," says the civil engineer, who's heading back to Africa for the fourth time in five years. "I meet people all the time who ask why I'm going there. They think I'm crazy or that I can't find a job here. But I'm not in it for the money."
Boudreault - who will soon hand his McGill professors the final draft of his master's thesis - has already worked on development projects in Ghana, Togo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Even as a kid in St-Nicolas, a suburb of Québec City, he knew his ambitions lay overseas. And he is blunt about why he chooses to use his skills there rather than on office buildings or condo towers: "For me this is a way to humanize a profession with a bad reputation."
It's an uncommon way of thinking that has already gained Boudreault much attention. La Presse has named him one of their personalities of the year. Forces Avenir, a Quebec body promoting young leaders, awarded him a $15,000 prize. A McGill paper compared his campus profile to that of a "rock star," though with his wire-frame glasses, he looks more like a record-store clerk.
Boudreault has it all mapped out. Maybe five more years on the development front lines, another degree, and ultimately a job designing policies rather than putting them into action. Whatever happens, he's determined to make a difference. "If you only complain," he says, "you can never change things."
Maclean's May 24, 2004