Rachel Witt’s love of science in general, and chemistry in particular, had an inspired beginning.
“I had Chem 11 with Steve Williams. On the first day of chemistry he did a demonstration – he set alcohol on fire. I was hooked and I just fell in love with chemistry.”
Her passion, which started in a classroom at Salmon Arm Secondary, took her to Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. ‘The Mount’ has a Science Communication program that combined her other interests.
“I really feel that science communication is needed now more than ever in Canadian society and students who choose this path will have significant impact across the globe,” says Rachel. “I’m not someone who was meant to be in a lab. I love helping people and I like outreach.”
When Rachel walked across the stage to pick up her diploma a couple of weeks ago, she also received the prestigious President’s Prize. The prize is awarded to graduates whose generosity, energy, and commitment enrich the university. As well, Rachel was named valedictorian of her graduating class.
In her speech Rachel offered a simple math equation for people to live by: grit + gratitude = greatness.
“We cannot learn grit, we have to experience it. We build it… We had challenges so great we never thought we could possibly conquer them, late nights that became early mornings, exceptionally challenging course material, and hard to stomach exam results. All of this to deal with and dwindling bank accounts, personal hardship, and that ever elusive balance between school and a personal life. We have not just survived, we have thrived.”
In a phone interview from Halifax Rachel says moving so far from home forced her to become independent and hone her problem-solving skills, but the famous east coast hospitality coupled with the caring MSVU staff helped her make that transition.
“The whole culture out here, I couldn’t have thrived without it. People took me in, even the president knew my name, not because of me – they just take the time. It’s the whole culture out here.”
Although Rachel talked of the elusive balance between study and fun, she clearly had a way of combining them that earned her the president’s award as well as the 2016 CSC Silver Medal Award as the top chemistry student entering the final year at the Mount, as well as scholarships. Besides maintaining an impressive grade point average, Rachel dedicated a significant amount of volunteer time to initiatives on and off campus.
She was part of the feminist collective, the vice-president of the science society, volunteered at a community outreach mental health and addictions program and she took on the challenging role of Chairperson for the Science Atlantic Chemistry Conference in 2016 (ChemCon2016). The planning committee was left without a chairperson mid-stream and Rachel’s professor asked her to step in.
“It was a big challenge. I hadn’t planned on that big of a task,” she says laughing.
The conference, with a 150 delegates, was a huge success.
“It was really cool to facilitate that kind of networking. People were talking about their research and asking each other questions.”
For Rachel, volunteering is an integral part of who she is and what her parents, Dave and Amy, instilled in her.
“I make sure I’m giving back to the community. I’m grateful to the greater Halifax community for the substantial scholarship (the presidential scholarship) so I was giving something back to show my gratitude.”
For the first time since she started university Rachel won’t be coming home for the summer as she is working part time at the university. But as much as she loves Atlantic Canada, there is no place like home.
“I miss the mountains, the lake, Shuswap Pie Company – and not being home for the Roots and Blues is hard.”