December 6, 1996
by Daniel McCabe
What's the best route to a Rhodes Scholarship? Ask McGill's two most recent winners and they'll insist it isn't a straight path. If you stumble upon an opportunity that doesn't strike others as sensible but stokes the fires of your imagination, take it. It will pay off in the end.
That's been the approach that Christine Soon Desmarais and Anne Andermann--McGill's latest Rhodes Scholars--have taken in their stellar, but somewhat offbeat student careers.
Before embarking on her mechanical engineering studies at McGill, Desmarais did a degree at the École de musique Vincent-d'Indy where she honed her talents as a violinist and pianist. After two years of thermodynamics and engineering design courses at McGill, Desmarais opted for a year as an exchange student at the University of British Columbia where she focused on physics. Her UBC studies were strictly a matter of personal interest because she didn't receive any credit towards her McGill degree.
"I've always been interested in physics," explains Desmarais. "I wanted to look at the world through a physicist's eyes for a year."
Andermann has had her share of zigs and zags as well--including interrupting her undergraduate science studies at McGill to spend a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "At the time, my father wasn't convinced it was such a great idea," recalls Andermann. "But when I got back, instead of feeling I had fallen behind in my studies, I felt really certain about myself. I decided to switch into an honours program and I'm not sure I would have made that choice had I stayed in Montreal."
Desmarais has been a research assistant for McGill's Shock Wave Research Group, a peer tutor in mathematics and engineering, and she beat all comers to win the debating championship during the Quebec Engineering Games earlier this year.
She also enjoys sports. An avid skier and runner, Desmarais saves her best efforts for ice sports. In CEGEP, her hockey team won an intramural championship. She was named the McGill league MVP when she took up broomball at the University.
Obviously Desmarais has a wide range of interests, but one tends to dominate. "I think math is wonderful," she enthuses. "It's the universal language for scientists--it's how we communicate. In math, there is no room for half-truths. You can't [cloak] what you're expressing the way you can with words. It's difficult to bullshit in math."
"It hasn't all been smooth sailing for her," says mechanical engineering professor Rabi Baliga, who has taught Desmarais twice. "In one of my courses, Christine received a terrible grade on her midterm. She came to see me after that, not to complain, but to find out where she was going wrong."
Baliga explained that Desmarais was focusing too much on the details of the course and not enough on how the material related to real-world problems. "Some students would have just panicked," says Baliga. Instead, Desmarais redoubled her efforts and adjusted her approach to the course. "She received 98% on the final exam--the best in the class," says Baliga with admiration.
Another fan is the Faculty of Engineering's associate dean (academic), Professor Ron Neufeld. He worked closely with Desmarais last year when she served as the Engineering Undergraduate Society's vice-president (academic).
"I told her she had some tough acts to follow," recalls Neufeld. "There were some outstanding students in that position before her, but she just broke the mould."
As an EUS executive, Desmarais argued--politely, but persuasively--for improvements to the teaching that goes on in the faculty.
She became a founding member of a new faculty committee on teaching and learning. Dean of Engineering John Dealy named her to another committee that was struck to consider the faculty's future. Desmarais also worked on the Students' Society's Think Tank on the Future of McGill.
"Christine was an articulate and vigorous presence," says Neufeld. "Her input was always well respected."
Working on the Think Tank as the sole voice from engineering got Desmarais thinking about how remote engineering and other disciplines are from one another.
"Engineering isn't really well understood by students in arts or management or music," says Desmarais. "That made me think about how people in different disciplines see things in different ways. It also made me worry about how engineering is perceived. Engineering can be a hard sell to younger people--especially girls. They have this image of hard-core math and science--they think it's just too difficult. They don't see the benefits--how it [equips] you to solve problems."
At Oxford, Desmarais will study psychology, philosophy and physiology, but she'll also use the time to consider methods for promoting better understanding between engineers and those outside the profession.
Andermann--whose parents Frederick and Eva are both highly regarded scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute--began her McGill studies in biology in 1991. According to her, the Faculty of Science didn't exactly greet her with enthusiasm.
As a result of a so-so grade in physics in CEGEP, officials in the faculty tried to convince her to enrol in another faculty. "I had to argue my way in," recalls Andermann. Once accepted, she was eager to prove she belonged. "In my first semester, I managed a [perfect] GPA of 4.00. That showed them what I was capable of," she says, laughing.
She quickly established herself as a regular presence on the dean's list. She took a break from McGill in 1993 to study in Israel, where she tried her hand at archaeology courses and was part of a sea-to-sea hiking expedition from the Mediterranean to the Galilee.
In 1994, after graduating with first-class honours, the Fantham Memorial Prize and a Philip F. Vineberg Travelling Fellowship, Andermann spent the summer in Ethiopia working on a health education project focusing on polio. Next, she was off to the University of Cambridge to do a master's in the philosophy of medicine. She returned to McGill this year as a medical student.
"Reading her CV makes you tired," says Professor Faith Wallis of the Department of Social Studies in Medicine. "She is unassuming and open and she has a luminous intelligence. She is somebody who is really going to make a difference in the world."
At Oxford, Andermann plans to do a doctorate in the history of medicine, focusing on a comparative study of the histories of the health care systems in Britain and Canada.
"If we look at the history of our health care system, I think it will help us understand how it got started and why it developed the way it did," explains Andermann. "There is so much talk about how the system has to be changed. I worry that the people who will be making the changes will do it without really understanding what it is that they're changing."
Andermann has worked in human genetics professor Guy Rouleau's lab as a researcher and has six published or forthcoming scholarly papers to her credit. She edits the "Crossroads" section of the McGill Journal of Medicine which features articles on medicine's impact on society. The next issue will include a piece by Andermann on the history of aspirin and what it tells us about the evolving relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and doctors.
She is also president of the Osler Society of McGill--a student group that organizes lectures on the place of medicine in society. "The Society was starting to fall apart when Anne came on board," says Wallis. "The quality of the speakers she has brought in has been just remarkable."
A past member of the McGill Debating Union, Andermann enjoys skiing and horseback riding. She has been a volunteer at both the Montreal Children's Hospital and the Shriner's Hospital for Crippled Children.
Once she completes her studies at Oxford, Andermann will return to McGill to finish her medical degree. She'll be a doctor--that much is decided--but what kind? "I'm interested in public health, in women's health issues, in children and in international health. I'm still up for grabs," she says.
Desmarais plans to work as an engineer for at least two years after Oxford, then maybe go on to graduate school "if I get the itch to teach." But, says Desmarais, her immediate goals are clear. "I want to pass my courses. It would be pretty embarrassing if I failed now!"