Elliott, Dr. Janet A.W.

2011 Finalist: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

Curiosity And Love Of Equations The Foundation Of Outstanding Science Career

Professor Janet Elliott began her accomplished career from a childhood love of math and solving equations.

“A picture tells a thousand words, but an equation draws a thousand pictures,” she says, simply.

Multidisciplinary Approach

Recognized for her contributions to the physical and life sciences – in addition to engineering – Dr. Elliott is an unparalleled research leader at the University of Alberta, in Canada, and internationally. She has created new paradigms for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research in physics, mathematics, biology and physical chemistry. She has applied these in diverse areas including fundamental fluid and surface science, medicine and industrial chemical engineering, among others. She is a world-recognized expert in interfacial phenomena in microgravity fluid science and was one of the first 100 Canadians to fly on NASA’s KC-135 parabolic flight aircraft.

Her groundbreaking research involves the development and application of thermodynamics, particularly with contributions to the Statistical Rate Theory (SRT) introduced by C. A. Ward. Her research has opened up new frontiers in quantum statistical thermodynamics, interfacial transport, nanoscale materials, space physical sciences and cryobiology.

An Exciting Opportunity 

While passionate about thermodynamics for a long time, Dr. Elliott hadn’t heard of cryobiology until 15 years ago, when during her first year at the U of A, a cryobiology professor L. E. McGann approached her saying that the field needed a thermodynamicist. It was a challenge this curious scientist couldn’t refuse. Drs. Elliott and McGann have since co-supervised 30 trainees.

Her equations, applied to the cryopreservation field, will be instrumental in making cartilage and other transplants more available in Canada. Currently transplants are limited by the short time frame the tissue is viable. Dr. Elliott works with what she describes as “a world-class cryopreservation group” at the U of A that includes medical biophysicists, surgeons, and engineers.

“My part of the work is developing equations to predict the fate of cells or the transport of enough cryoprotectant into the tissue before the cryoprotectant becomes toxic to the tissue,” she says. The team is now setting its sites on cornea cryopreservation.

Looking Towards the Future

Dr. Elliott says she is not motivated by the immediate use of her research. “Often, when people do great work, the impact is not felt for hundreds of years,” she says. “I am interested in developing deep knowledge to solve problems, as opposed to being on a quest to develop a technology in a few years.”

When asked what the most rewarding aspect of her career is, Dr. Elliot is unequivocal. “It’s getting to work with the graduate students and helping shape how they become scientists, and to be with them during their first discoveries.”

“What distinguishes humans is our quest for knowledge and our ability to collaborate, and that’s what excites me – learning new stuff and working with people.”