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McGill Reporter
November 16, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 06
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Edith Engelberg: Taking care of physics

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If the Faculty of Education wants to create truly great teachers, they should seriously consider making a physics course with Edith Engelberg a mandatory part of the curriculum.

After teaching at McGill for 41 years, the woman knows a few trade secrets -- enthusiasm being among them. "It's just fascinating. Each day of teaching is exceptionally exciting to me."

Engelberg began teaching in the Department of Physics in 1959, and she's been a senior demonstrator in the laboratory course in Mechanics, Heat and Optics since its inception 31 years ago.

Because it is a required course for undergraduates, she is in the unique position of coming into contact with just about every student who comes through the doors of the Rutherford Physics Building.

"I can't imagine doing anything else. Physics explains the way things work, and I'm able to show that to students.

"People think it's one of the hardest things to teach, but it's actually one of the easiest. There's a pattern and a reason for everything. It's why I would find teaching literature excruciatingly difficult," she admits with a shudder.

For the majority of her years at McGill, Engelberg was the only woman teaching in the department. She describes the experience as lonely.

If she didn't face discrimination within the Department of Physics, it was "probably because we weren't viewed as competition."

That wasn't the case when Engelberg looked for work in chemistry in the 1950s shortly after graduating. "There wasn't much work for women chemists in Canada. The idea that 'the few were a few too many' prevailed."

In fact, Engelberg had been rejected from McGill's graduate program in chemistry on the grounds that a woman had just graduated from the program a year earlier -- she was essentially told that the department shouldn't be getting too ahead of itself by taking on more female graduate students.

But Engelberg was born with a rebellious spirit, and never was one to give up easily.

She graduated from McGill with a combined BSc honours degree in chemistry, math and physics in 1955, when few women even attended post-secondary school.

She had been working for a few years when her former physics professor Anna MacPherson (an earlier female trail blazer in the department) insisted that she come back to McGill to teach. Engelberg taught her first class with the help of her mentor.

"She was such an understanding, professional person," Engelberg says of MacPherson. "She taught me the rigors of doing things the right way -- no winging it, being prepared to the last digit. And that's how we teach now."

Engelberg has consistently maintained her finger on the pulse of her students -- not because it is required of her, but because of an irrepressible urge to care for others.

"I love working with young people. I feel I can make a real contribution to this department and to students." As we speak, a pair of students enters her office to collect their lab report. Engelberg waits for their grins, and then congratulates them for a job well done. "It's such a treat for me to see such excellence and excitement in students."

She says that she's never come across a problem student. "I've only had students who've had problems themselves, and I try to be understanding under those circumstances. It was never easy to be young, and it never will be."

Engelberg's compassion and dedication has earned her the reputation of being a kind of mother hen to physics students.

"She really has two roles," says departmental chair Professor Jean Barrette. "She has her job in the lab, and she also has taken on the role of mentor to a great number of students, in their professional and also personal lives." Barrette notes that it is Engelberg who, each year, collects the names of students looking for summer employment and puts potential employers in contact with them.

The faculty and students have, in turn, paid homage to the demonstrator they have come to see as a part of the family. Last March, faculty and staff in physics held a ceremony to commemorate her 40 years at the University. "They also got in touch with dozens of former colleagues and students -- one even came from California! It was an afternoon in paradise."

Physics professor Nick de Takacsy says, "I can't remember, nor can I imagine, the Department of Physics without her. She has been the pillar on which the undergraduate program has been built."

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I often think that if we got rid of the word 'strategy' we'd be better off. The idea that it is immaculately conceived, like Moses walking down from the mountain, is silly.

Management professor Henry Mintzberg, skewering the notion of strategic planning, in a discussion with Fast Company magazine. Mintzberg believes the best companies are the ones that are crafty enough to adapt to changing circumstances.

Fake IDs for PhDs

There is fierce competition among Chinese students to get into a good US graduate school, says the US News & World Report. So fierce, in fact, "that services to help students cheat have become a cottage industry in Beijing's university district," the magazine reports.

For the right price, Chinese students can hire someone to write essays, take GMAT exams and forge transcripts and diplomas.

The magazine interviewed an ex-soldier who now earns his keep faking university documents for students longing to go to the US for their graduate studies.

"There are over a hundred other people out there every day, doing the same thing," he gripes. "Everyone knows how good the money is. It's better than dealing drugs."

According to the magazine, the students seeking out these services aren't generally dummies. "Many of the cheaters have decent credentials but simply do not want to risk a less-than-perfect application."

University of Iowa professor Richard Horwitz spent a year in China recently as a Fulbright scholar and was shocked to be approached by an organization offering to pay him to rewrite application essays for Chinese students.

"They feel American institutions are biased against Chinese students because their English is bad. But the result is that once the students get to the States, they don't do well, some have psychological problems, and money is wasted."

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The campaign is about activity, about momentum and movement. Then it's like the Titanic just before it hit the iceberg: You shut down the engines and drift and pray with all your might that you miss the iceberg.

History professor Gil Troy, an expert on U.S. presidential elections, sharing his thoughts about candidates and election night with The Plain Dealer.

The adventures of Dr Brenda

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A few weeks ago, neuropsychologist Brenda Milner was "very delighted" to learn she'd been published. Not in Science or Nature, but a magazine which is, in some circles, of even greater prestige: Les Débrouillards, a Quebec science magazine with a readership of 31,500 eight- to 12-year-olds.

In fact, it was psychology professor Laura Ann Petitto's daughter who first sighted the article in the magazine at her school library and Petitto who then signalled her colleague.

"It's very good science," says Milner. "Better than The New York Times. It's amusing, charming and totally unexpected."

Those may not be the usual adjectives to describe a scientific article, but then "Brenda Milner: une femme de tête," is no usual scientific article; it's a comic strip, one of a series the magazine has published on the history of Canadian science.

The 28 panels depict the major moments in Milner's career: meeting neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in the 1950s when she was a young psychologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute, working with MNI founder Wilder Penfield, discovering the role played by the hippocampus (in the brain) in memory, and being honoured by the Medical Research Council in 1964.

The strip portrays Milner as not having her "langue dans sa poche," as Débrouillards editor Johanne David put it. That's true, said the 82-year-old Milner, who still works at the Montreal Neurological Institute. "I am outspoken, but I wasn't over the question of acquiring [brain] imaging equipment [as depicted in the strip].

"I'm more the string and sealing wax type, in the British tradition," said the native of Manchester with a laugh, recounting her early years at the MNI, before the creation of the MRC in 1954, when she had to scrounge for the basic materials and budget in order to do her research.

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