Making a difference in students' lives
By Phoebe Dey
On the side of a faded filing cabinet in the office of Margaret-Ann Armour, '70 PhD, a white piece of paper bears the saying, "I'm just catching up with yesterday. By tomorrow I should be ready for today." judging from the clutter of Armour's narrow office on the third floor of the Central Academic Building, the motto appears to have some merit, but anyone who gets to know Amour quickly learns it belies her successes.
Armour, one of the founding members of WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering Science and Technology) and associate chair in the chemistry department, is a familiar face on campus. She has been at the university since 1970, when she finished her PhD in chemistry and went oil to become an international expert on biochemical hazards. She returned to her native Scotland for one year in 1971 but was drawn back to the prairies and has remained here ever since.
Taking pride in teaching
The awards and distinctions adorning Armour's walls arc a small indication of her accomplishments, but her greatest pride comes from the many students she has influenced over the last 20 years.
"I consider the students my family," says the never-married Armour. Listening to her respond to her constant calls—arranging a timetable or scheduling an appointment—it is obvious she genuinely cares about her charges. Even through the phone, you can hear her smile.
With practised ease, she tells the story of how WISEST started. It was in 1982 when the late Dr. Gordin Kaplan, then vice-president (research) at the U of A, attended a seminar on microprocessors. He noted that in the packed room, only one attendee was a woman. Spurred to action, he called Armour—at one time the only female academic in the chemistry department—to see if she would sit on a task force to promote the participation of women in all scholarly disciplines. "I told him I thought I'd been doing that all my life," she says in her faded Scottish lilt.
At WISEST's first event, more than 150 graduate and senior undergraduate students turned up to a discussion meeting. The next year, WISEST launched its summer research program, and since then, three spirl-off groups have been formed, attracting even more young females to traditionally male-dominated fields. Today, 20 years later, almost 700 students havc been matched with University mentors.
For her work, Armour was reccntly given the Sarah Shorten award, a national honour from the Canadian Astiociation of University Teachers that recognizes out-standing achievement in the promotion and advancement of women in Canadian universities. The award committee cited Armour's lengthy involvement with equity issues at the U of A, including her work in establishing the U of A's daycare centre. She has "helped open doors for generations of women," said the committee.
This latest award is one of an endless list including all honorary membership in the Golden Key International Society and the 1994 McNeil Medal from the Royal Society of Canada. Not resting on her laurels, Armour wants to see WISEST forge even further ahead. Currently, she says, "we lose a lot of women after the first degree; they're just not low coming to grad school, so we're working on that." A large study she conducted several years ago, however, did find that WISEST graduates are more likely to go onto graduate school than their peers. "We're catching their interest somehow."
Armour's scientific roots began at an early age back in Scotland. Her mother was a teacher and often took private pupils into their home. When one of the boys turned 12, his father decided that his son was a young man and did not need his toys anymore, so Armour became the recipient of train collections, mechanic sets, and "all toys that were typical for boys. I wonder if that provided a little bit of informal learning that attracted tile to science."
Armour's mothcr also encouraged her young daughter to bake, sparking a certain curiosity for what was taking place in thc m en. She wondered how an inedible dough could turn out cooked and ready to eat. "Somehow, I rationalize my interest in science by saying those two experiences might have drawn me in. That and having a good science teacher in high school."
Today, Armour is that good science teacher. At the University most days until at least 6 p.m., she is always willing to help. Admittedly, she finds it difficult to say no, but still manages to volunteer in her church and sing in its choir. She also sets aside time for her other loves: gardening and music. Her tickets for the symphony, opera and theatre keep her in touch with the dramatic arts, a passion she almost pursued in university.
For now, Armour's stage is a small cluttered office where she plays a starring role amoung both graduates and undergraduates, undecided about their careers or needing assistance in any way. The standing ovation goes on and on.
Published Spring/Summer 2002.