Armour, Dr. Margaret-Ann

2007 Winner: ASTech Special Award

From Glasgow To Edmonton: The Remarkable Career Of An Inspiring Woman

This past July, at a golf tournament held in Edmonton to raise funds for her beloved WISEST program, Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour recounted a story that tells as much about her as it does the organization she champions.

“I was at the Toronto Airport, recently, on my way through to catch my connecting flight home. All of a sudden, a girl I vaguely recognised ran up and threw her arms around me. ‘I was in the WISEST program a few years ago. Now I’m in university studying science!’” Dr. Armour beamed at her audience and added, “That’s the kind of thing that makes me most proud. To awaken a love of learning in a young woman’s mind. There’s nothing better.”

Making a Difference

In late 1981, Gordon Kaplan, then the U of A’s Vice-President, Research, convinced Dr. Armour that something needed to be done about the dearth of women in science. He was assembling a group of 20 leaders who would look into the matter and, rather than publishing papers that would gather dust and never be read, actually do something to address the imbalance.

A year later, Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology (WISEST) was born. Its summer research program launched two years later and now boasts of having influenced almost 1,000 young women—and a few young men, including Jeeshan Chowdhury, one of this year’s Finalists for the ASTech Leaders of Tomorrow Award.

“The next challenge,” says Dr. Armour, “is to develop and maintain an alumni database that allows WISEST to stay in touch with its graduates, many of whom have gone on to careers in science and technology.”

Where it All Started

Margaret-Ann Armour was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on September 6, 1939, just three days after the start of World War II. Her father was lost to lingering effects of the global conflict and she was raised by a mother who turned to her training as a teacher to support the family. When Margaret-Ann was very young, her mum accepted a position in a small town midway between Dundee to the south and Aberdeen to the north along the east coast.

The British streaming test known as 11-plus indicated she should pursue academic studies, and she and her mother moved again, this time to Penicuik (pronounced “Pennycook”), a paper-making town near Edinburgh. It was at the local school there, Lasswade, that her natural curiosity for how things worked flowered into a passion for science.

Finding Inspiration

Influenced by her chemistry teacher, a kind, gentle father figure with the incongruous name of Pop Davidson, the young Margaret-Ann discovered answers to questions such as, “Why can’t I eat raw dough but when I put it in the oven for a while it becomes delicious and healthful?” Davidson was a challenging but fair taskmaster who pushed his students to ask questions and seek solutions themselves.

Her interest in science blossomed and she attended the University of Edinburgh, obtaining a BSc in Chemistry before returning to Penicuik to work at one of the paper-making companies there. Though small, the outfit boasted its own lab and she was able to engage in interesting research, focusing on finding better coatings for paper. As a result, she synthesised and tested many compounds, working with colleagues at the universities of Edinburgh and London. Eventually, she wrote up and presented her results and Edinburgh awarded her an external master’s degree.

Travelling to Canada

At the time, Canadian universities were advertising for graduate students and she accepted the first positive response she received—an offer the U of A cabled to her, complete with a pre-paid response. After receiving her PhD, she returned to the University of Edinburgh for her post-doctoral fellowship, studying with Professor John Cadogan, later Principal Chemist for the BP group and, eventually, Director General of the UK Research Councils. He gave her the opportunity to do the work that interested her. But she found that in her absence, either Scotland had changed or she had and she accepted an offer to complete her post-doc at the U of A’s Department of Biochemistry.

For five years, she ran the undergraduate senior organic chemistry labs and served as a research associate to Professor Satoru Masamune, an outstanding chemist who asked her to accompany him to MIT. Having no desire to move to the US, she declined, and eventually became the coordinator of all organic chemistry undergraduate labs.

The Focus of Her Research

It was around that time that Bob Crawford became her advocate and encouraged her to pursue her own research. She and some colleagues began wondering how small labs disposed of dangerous waste. They received some Occupational Health and Safety money through the Heritage Trust Fund and discovered that there existed no real guidelines on how to dispose of the material. This became the focus of the next 20 years of her career, during which time she published Hazardous Laboratory Chemicals Disposal Guide (now in its sixth edition), along the way becoming an international expert in the field, working with, among others, the World Health Organization.

Inspiring Young People

All her research aside, what Dr. Armour has loved most about her career is that it has taken her so often to high school classrooms to teach young people about science. She remains at heart her mother’s daughter. University of Alberta Dean of Science, Greg Taylor, asked her, when Margaret-Ann retired a couple of years ago, to become associate dean responsible for diversity. It was with great pleasure, and no hesitation, that she accepted the invitation; it takes her work with girls in WISEST to the next stage, allowing her to take action and increase the percentage of women in faculties of science.

This part-time opportunity also allows her to continue speaking with kids. And who better for such a role than someone who credits her interest in science to a natural curiosity nurtured by a box full of “boy’s”  toys she inherited as a four-year-old? She remembers the great joy generated by playing with her shiny Hornby Train Set, with its engines, tunnels, and bridges. Girls didn’t have such things available to them back then. Now, they do. They also have the likes of Margaret Ann-Armour, a woman whose life has been spent impacting young minds. We can only hope she’ll continue to do so for many years to come.