Kavanagh a woman of distinction

June 15, 2006, volume 36, no. 4
By Diane Luckow

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Materials scientist Karen Kavanagh, a professor of physics at SFU, is a trailblazer for women in her field and winner of the 2006 YWCA Woman of Distinction award in science and technology.

Kavanagh, who joined SFU in 2000, is distinctive for many reasons, not least of which is her choice of profession. In a field dominated by males - only three per cent of full physics professors in Canada are women - she is a significant role model for young women interested in a career in science.

While she has faced no discrimination in her chosen work, as far as she knows, she says, “It's still important to be aware of potential problems of discrimination because you're a woman.”

An expert in understanding the structure of properties and materials, Kavanagh's research explores the properties of the multiple layers of different materials that make up semiconductor devices.

Her work is fundamental to improving the efficiency of electronic devices inside, for example, computers, cell phones, lasers and MP3 players. At SFU, she established and directs the nano-imaging facility where researchers use high-resolution instruments to examine matter built from small numbers of atoms and/or molecules.

Recognized by her peers with several prestigious awards: a Presidential Young Investigator award from the National Science Foundation in the U.S. and a fellowship in the Institute of Physics in the United Kingdom, to name just two, she is also a member of a National Science and Engineering Research Council grants selection committee, where she has the opportunity to influence national funding for research in her field.

Kavanagh also has an influence on the few young women who venture into physics. About 10 to 20 per cent of students in physics are women, a number that, unfortunately, hasn't changed significantly since she was a student in the 1970s. It's not unusual, she says, for these women to contact her years later to thank her for her help and example. “That's one of the perks of the job,” she says. “To feel that you're having an impact in a positive sense.”

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