Dr. Jenifer Thewalt
B.Sc. Biophysics, SFU 1979
Ph.D. Chemistry, SFU 1986
Professor, SFU Depts. of Molecular Biology & Biochemistry and Physics
Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Dermatology and Skin Science, UBC.
I started off at SFU in 1974 intending to do a double major in Chemistry & Math, the two subjects I enjoyed most in high school. My 1979 BSc ended up being Honours Biophysics with a Minor in Math – evidence of either intellectual meandering or maturation. I followed up with a PhD in Chemistry, subfield Physical Biochemistry, in 1986: “Deuterium NMR studies of model membranes containing 1-alkanol anesthetics or alpha-tocopherol.” I was awarded a fellowship to do postdoctoral work with renowned professor Myer Bloom in Physics at UBC and in 1995 returned to SFU as an assistant professor in MBB and Physics, with an adjunct professorship in the UBC Department of Dermatology and Skin Science. Exploring the importance of specific lipids in determining the structure and behaviour of membranes is my research passion. Of course research isn’t everything: I married SFU Physics professor Mike Thewalt in 1982 and our son Eric graduated from SFU with an Honours Physics BSc in 2011.
Why did you choose to go to SFU?
My family has been SFU fans and supporters from the beginning. My sister Ann McMillan (nee Tribe) was one of the first women to graduate from SFU with an Honour’s Bachelor degree in Math. My sister has always been a source of inspiration and I was keen to follow in her footsteps! My mother Constance Tribe went back to school when I was 14 – she was valedictorian at Douglas College and then finished her Bachelor’s in Humanities at SFU.
What is your favourite memory from your time at SFU?
So many to choose from! A highlight from my first year was attending a dance with Heart performing. They are still going strong but were “up and coming” back then.
Who was your favourite SFU professor and why?
Keith Slessor was amazing. I still remember his Organic Chemistry slides – incredibly comprehensive. I was very shy as an undergrad but once visited his office to ask a question. He pondered and finally said – “That’s a good question – I’m not sure if you know why it’s a good question”. Always challenging!
Where did you spend the most amount of time on campus?
Lots of time in the pool. Lots of time in the library. Quite a lot of time in the pub!
What is your favourite SFU snow, construction, or rain memory?
This isn’t really SFU centric… but…
An embarrassing memory stays with me. I was driving my beaten up Valiant station wagon to SFU to study in the library one cold winter’s night. I noticed, driving up Gaglardi Way, that the engine temperature was stuck on HIGH and thought the radiator was simply in need of topping up (I did my own maintenance, including oil changes, back then). When I got to campus & checked, I realized that it was completely frozen. Luckily the engine wasn’t damaged.
I also have happy tubing memories at nearby Centennial Park after big snowfalls.
How have you used your SFU degree in your career?
As a professor, I use my SFU degrees all the time. I’m still fascinated by membranes!
What is the one thing that every student should do before they graduate SFU?
Walk around on the roof on a sunny day, looking at the mountains.
If you could give advice to students what would you tell them?
Try to give yourself time to really learn about your own intellectual talents, interests and dislikes. Students are under so much pressure but these internal “check-ups” will give direction for subsequent choices in life.
Which famous scientist has most inspired you?
Maud Menten is not as well known as she should be. She grew up near Agassiz and encountered huge barriers to her education because she was a woman. Despite this she made many important contributions to our understanding of biomolecular function throughout her career, and seems to have never lost her joie de vivre.
What is your vision for the Faculty of Science over the next 50 years?
Extrapolations make me nervous. The Faculty of Science should continue to foster excellence among its professors and students, of course. The cooperative and collegial nature of Science is becoming more important as time goes by – the old stereotype of solitary scientists in their labs is rarely seen now. The Faculty can have an important role in highlighting the importance of collaboration to discovery.