Special Report for International Year of Chemistry
By Peter Calamai
How Suzanne Fortier’s unmistakable enthusiasm for Canadian science began with a passion for solving the “beautiful puzzles” of the structure of matter.
When Suzanne Fortier was about 10 years old, she told her parents she wanted a chemistry set for Christmas.
“They asked, where have you heard of this thing? They had no idea where to get one,” she recalls. A rudimentary chemistry set was eventually tracked down but Fortier still needed somewhere to carry out experiments. Her convent school in the village of Saint-Timothée west of Montreal had nothing as grand as a science lab; however, her mother and father owned and operated a small local hotel. On the hotel’s ground floor a large room was devoted to eating, drinking and dancing — and usually deserted in the afternoons. This explains how an illustrious career in science for the current president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council came to life on the beer-stained tables of a village bar, with a precocious young girl trying to make perfumes from local flowers.
Suzanne Fortier grew up in a world far removed from that of most of her female scientist counterparts in Canada and her journey to prominence is as fascinating as the outcome. For the first 20 years of her life she spoke only French. Her elementary school had just one bookcase of books. She was in the first group of girls admitted to the local CEGEP, previously a seminary. And no one in her extended family had ever gone to university.
Yet intense curiosity, infectious enthusiasm, recurring serendipity and lots of hard work saw Fortier earn a B.Sc. and PhD in just eight years, engage in frontier crystallography research, branch out into computing, win praise as an imaginative and committed university administrator and, in January, renew for a second five-year term as NSERC president.
Along the way the 61-year-old has also become proficient in English and Italian (with a smattering of Greek as well), raised a son together with husband Doug Babington, survived a bout of breast cancer, honed an appreciation for Italian wine and cuisine and racked up more than 80 scientific publications and a string of honours.
“Science was Suzanne’s passion and what she pursued,” says astronaut Julie Payette, a Fortier friend. “She shows that if you have an objective and a dream in life there is no reason you can’t accomplish it.” Like nearly everyone interviewed for this profile, Payette cites Fortier’s sharp intellect and easy-going demeanour as key to her success. “There’s no wall around Suzanne. She doesn’t carry any of the stereotypes you associate with such a person. She’s very welcoming,” says Payette.
The astronaut also notes that the NSERC president isn’t “especially tall” and therefore not imposing in a traditional physical sense. Yet in person Fortier radiates electricity like a Van der Graaf generator (one blessed with innate fashion sense) while her darting eyes constantly absorb information from all around. Such curiosity and enthusiasm undoubtedly played a crucial part in Fortier’s first life-shaping lucky break. She and a fellow female CEGEP student entered a project on the diffraction of sound waves in the 1968 Quebec provincial science fair.
A crystallographer from McGill University (likely Professor A. J. Freuh, she thinks) stopped at their exhibit and invited the two girls to visit his lab if they wanted to learn more about diffraction. Fortier went, and was hooked.
“I discovered then that crystallography presented you with beautiful puzzles to solve. There are incredible pictures that you get of the structure of matter.”
When the unilingual francophone entered anglophone McGill in 1969, she declared she wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree in crystallography, not realizing no one had ever done that there. Fortier also didn’t realize that she had been placed directly into second year, as part of the first CEGEP graduating class in Quebec. Nor did she know there was such a thing as graduate work.
Along came another instance of serendipity in the form of a famous husband-and-wife team of crystallographers, J.D.H and Gabrielle Donnay, whom McGill had just recruited from the U.S. Gabrielle advised Fortier to apply for an NSERC scholarship and jump directly from a B.Sc. to a PhD, which she did with Gabrielle as her supervisor.
Photo Credit: NSERC
As Fortier was winding up her thesis, she experienced something akin to a scientific epiphany at a conference talk by U.S. mathematician Herbert Hauptman, a pioneer in direct methods for determining crystal structures.
“His talk was all formula. I thought it was the best thing I had ever heard in my life. We could crack the big puzzles by using mathematics — probabilistic theory,” Fortier says, simultaneously searching her office shelves for a book by Hauptman, who shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Jerome Karle. For six years Fortier worked with Hauptman in molecular biophysics at a private research institute in Buffalo, first as a post-doc and later as a research scientist. In between came a two year break during which she married, lived briefly in Greece while her husband taught and was a research associate at the National Research Council in Ottawa.
In 1982 she launched the Queen’s University phase of her career, which would last until 2005 and culminate in back-to-back appointments as vice-principal research and vice-principal academic following a decade as a professor of chemistry and also as a professor of computing.
Fortier added computing to her resume by sitting in on classes on artificial intelligence, logic and machine learning. “It was pretty much serendipity. I had friends who were in this area. Your mind is always open to get new ideas.”
Sometimes serendipity has had a helping hand, as Fortier acknowledges happened with her appointment as a member of the now-defunct Ontario Council on University Affairs.
“I was young, a woman in science, and French. When you’re trying to fill various subgroups and all of it is in one place, you grab it.”
The council experience was followed with increasingly responsible posts in Queen’s administration until Bill Leggett, the newly arrived principal, tapped Fortier in 1995 to become vice-principal for research after a wide search.
“Suzanne has an infectious enthusiasm for research and what it means to the country,” Leggett says. “She gets as much pleasure from the research of others as from her own research.”
Anyone who has seen Fortier beaming with enthusiasm as she hands out NSERC’s annual research awards can vouch for this vicarious enjoyment.
No amount of enthusiasm, however, could have steeled Fortier for what she calls her breast cancer “triathlon” of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation soon after being appointed to her “dream job” as NSERC president in 2006. Heading for Thompson Rivers University in B.C. to accept an honourary degree, she bumped into TRU chancellor Nancy Greene in an airport and confessed her concerns.
“I told her I was worried that the NSERC staff was going to say they had been given a lemon. She’s just arrived, and she’s broken.
“Nancy said there is always someone injured on a ski team, and the team rallies round them. ‘Trust your team,’ she said. ‘They will get stronger rather than weaker.’ It was just what I needed to hear.”
Suzanne Fortier also became stronger. She handles a gruelling travel schedule (92 days away from Ottawa on NSERC business last year) and manages a $1 billion-a-year operation that’s adjusting to a world-wide demand from government for more immediate pay-offs from science and engineering research.
Her former Queen’s colleague, Bill Leggett, is confident Fortier will defend the core values of independent inquiry.“She is a very principled woman … very principled. She is prepared to stand and fall on certain basic principles that she believes are fundamental to human behaviour.”
Peter Calamai is a freelance writer and editor based in Ottawa who began reporting on science for Canadian newspapers in 1969. He shares Suzanne Fortier’s passion for Italian wine and food but unfortunately not her prowess in Italian.
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