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Superb students saluted
Some of the province's most accomplished university students were féted in style recently in Quebec City. With officials from the provincial government and from all Quebec's universities in the audience, the Forces AVENIR ceremonies shone a spotlight on a range of talented students. Three of the winners were from McGill.
Astrid Christoffersen-Deb, the winner in the outstanding undergraduate category, is a familiar name to Reporter readers. Christoffersen-Deb is McGill's most recent Rhodes Scholar. Her accomplishments at McGill include launching the Bedtime Stories Program for patients at the Montreal Children's Hospital, serving as president of the United Nations Student Association of McGill University and playing violin in the Faculty of Medicine's I Medici di McGill musical ensemble.
Currently at Oxford, Christoffersen-Deb is finding out first hand what being a Rhodes Scholar is all about. "Here at Oxford, we are surrounded by outstanding professors and students whose presence in the classroom (and beyond) challenge each one of us to realize our potential," she says in an e-mailed message.
"Though the work ethic is unlike anything I have ever seen in my life, there is a definite Oxford joie de vivre which is the result of centuries of students from all over the world converging in one place and feeling inspired by the eccentric architecture, wealth of books, classrooms of ideas and, of course, the pubs, which keep you talking till the late hours of the night."
Asked if there are unique pressures associated with being a Rhodes Scholar -- after all, it would be a major letdown to go on to a mediocre career after reaching such an auspicious pinnacle -- Christoffersen-Deb is thoughtful.
"I believe that the pressure faced by Rhodes Scholars is one that is internal and specific to each of us. But, I admit that our extreme good fortune as Rhodes Scholars compels us to consider our sojourn in Oxford as a stepping stone into a career of service, as wished for in the will of the late Cecil Rhodes. Thus, it is not surprising to learn that many of the scholars are pursuing graduate degrees in areas of development and international affairs." Christoffersen-Deb herself is now working towards a master's in philosophy focusing on development studies.
At the graduate student level, the winner was Kimberley Ducey, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology. As the president of the Graduate Association of Sociology Students, Ducey led the way in putting together a popular professional development seminar series for graduate students. "I"m just the figurehead," Ducey insists, saying that many graduate students in her department contributed to the series, which tackles such themes as how to be a teaching assistant, how to get published and how to apply for grants.
She also helped set up a big brother/big sister program in the department -- pairing new graduate students with more seasoned pros who can offer advice on everything from "where the nearest grocery store is to how to get ready for comprehensive exams."
Student government is nothing new to Ducey. While doing her master's at Queen's University, she was a member of both senate and the board of trustees. "This is the most wonderful department," she enthuses when asked why she got involved in student governance at McGill. "It's given me so much. I wanted to give back."
Ducey's doctoral studies focus on single mothers who are pursuing post-secondary education. She says she wants to use both her teaching and research to "give a voice to people who often go unheard." She says "sociology has the potential" to bring up topics and perspectives that are unique to people who often don't have a lot of power in society.
She won't be an academic who disdains the classroom. She already has an impressive range of credits as a teacher. She taught two courses at McGill this summer, one on crime, the other on TV in society, and is currently teaching another course on social problems. "Teaching is my number one passion," she declares.
The Experimental Medicine Graduate Student Society (EMGSS) earned the Force AVENIR prize for health. The group put together a successful conference last year called "A Meeting of Minds" that brought together graduate students from across the University who were interested in biomedical research.
"We tend to be dispersed all over McGill -- in different departments, at Macdonald Campus, in the teaching hospitals," says EMGSS president Galit Alter. "In order to keep up in science, you need to know about new approaches, new products, new techniques.
"This was an opportunity for us to exchange information and to increase the contact between the different laboratories."
She says there was a subtler purpose as well -- to underscore the importance of what these graduate students are doing. "It's a hard life," she says of the long hours and uncertain career prospects facing students in labs. The conference afforded an opportunity for McGill to say "what you're doing is important."
The group secured $10,000 in support from two pharmaceutical companies, arranged for a prestigious guest speaker to arrive from Britain's Cancer Research Centre, organized a series of prizes for outstanding oral and poster presentations and promoted the event throughout McGill. Two hundred participants turned up.
Alter says the EMGSS wants the event to become a permanent fixture at McGill. Not only that, they have serious expansion in mind. More companies have already agreed to support the next conference in February. Graduate students from Université de Montréal and Concordia have been invited to attend as observers with an eye towards developing a Montreal-wide conference in 2003. "Then, if we can get enough sponsors aboard, we can think about inviting Queen's, McMaster, Toronto - we can do a conference for eastern Canada." Not at a loss for ambition, Alter adds that the EMGSS is hoping to attract a Nobel laureate to serve as guest speaker for the 2002 conference.
Force AVENIR winners are selected in a three-stage process. Universities start the ball rolling by nominating their own candidates. Specialist juries then trim that list down to three finalists for each category. Finally a grand jury, composed of heavy hitters such as Hydro-Québec president André Caillé and former Quebec cabinet minister Lise Payette, choose the winners.
Winning also involves receiving money. Christoffersen-Deb, Ducey and the EMGSS each received $8,000.