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Recognizing the Real Joy

During more than 35 years as a teacher and researcher at the University of Alberta, Mary Spencer has accumulated her share of memories.

While the university professor of plant science willingly discusses her numerous honors and the exemplary research and service from which those honors have sprung, the memories she introduces are of other people — colleagues and students — and of misadventures now distant enough to be remembered with a smile.

Seated in her office in the well-equipped Agriculture and Forestry Centre on campus, Dr. Spencer recalls many years spent in the less-than-ideal confines of the old South Lab. No ivory tower it: the real world had a habit of insinuating itself all too frequently in the form of errant snowflakes in winter and stifling heat in summer.

"The only way we got air conditioning of any sort was to prove that we couldn't cool water baths down to the temperatures the tissues needed," says Dr Spencer, who smiles as she recalls that her office was adjacent to the ice machine —"not only was the machine itself noisy, but it was a great place for people to gather and visit."

Also located in the South Lab for many years was the Food Science Department. "I enjoyed my food science neighbors but," says the plant science professor who admits ("I suppose it can come out now.") to doing her best to avoid them at times — those times when they were recruiting for taste panels for some of their more dubious experiments. She particularly remembers entomologist Brian Hocking's attempts to find a place in the gastronomic universe for Alberta bees. She's fully aware that in some cultures bees are a delicacy, but doesn't recall with gusto the entomologist's efforts to have her taste pickled bees, bees in sherry, or bees in other guises.

"Brian Hocking was a truly fine person," she says, "but that was hard on our friendship." That friendship endured however and one of her most poignant memories is of the entomologist "trying to give right up to the end," spending his final days in a hospital bed completing a text that his son later saw into press.

Although she was born in Regina, Mary Spencer can claim a birth link with the Alberta pioneering tradition to which she has contributed in a different era with her ground-breaking work in plant biochemistry. Her Iowa-born mother was a member of a pioneer family which settled in the Ohaton area, near Camrose; her father came west from Ontario and taught school in Wetaskiwin and Edmonton before moving to Regina, where he became a lawyer.

Dr. Spencer grew up in the Saskatchewan capital and graduated from Regina College and the University of Saskatchewan, where she earned high honors in chemistry. A scholarship took her to Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, where she earned her MSc. After working in industry for three years she returned to school, this time at the University of California, Berkeley for PhD studies in agricultural chemistry.

At that time scientific interest in ethylene was awakening, and Dr. Spencer recalls "taking the bait" when choosing a thesis topic. The field was so new that no supervisor could be found at Berkeley, and she worked instead under a researcher from the USDA lab at Albany, California.

Ethylene is a gaseous hydrocarbon which is both a plant hormone and an environmental pollutant. Its agricultural potential was first indicated when it was observed that oranges growing near gas street lamps or shipped in railway cars with kerosene heaters ripened quickly, and ethylene — a byproduct of combustion — was identified as the agent involved.

Ethylene was the first plant growth regulator used commercially and is likely the most widely used growth regulator in the world today. It has been shown to play a role not only in fruit ripening but in the control of germination, cell growth and other aspects of aging. Because very small amounts have very powerful effects, excess ethylene in the atmosphere — largely as a result of incomplete combustion of hydrocarbon fuels — is regarded as cause for concern.

Dr. Spencer and her husband came to Edmonton in 1953. He went to work with the Alberta Research Council and she joined the U of A faculty as an assistant professor of biochemistry, switching to the Plant Science Department in 1963. From her lab have come many original contributions to knowledge about ethylene and its effects on plants, and she also did some early work to show that the human body produces ethylene. Still actively involved in research,

Dr. Spencer is currently looking at ethylene-carbon dioxide interactions, a study of special significance because of the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide now known to be taking place. She is also investigating the possible use of ethylene to synchronize weed germination-if weeds could be made to germinate all at one time, it would simplify their eradication.

While her research accomplishments have been formidable, many of the honors the plant science professor has received also recognize her broader contributions.

In 1971, Dr. Spencer was one of the first two women ever to be appointed to the board responsible for the direction of the National Research Council. During her two NRC terms she served on numerous committees, served as advisor on biology and chaired a national committee on forestry research. In 1986 she was named to the National Science and Engineering Research Council and is currently serving a second term. At the University she has served as a member of the University Research Policy Committee and of the faculty councils of Arts and Science, Medicine and Home Economics. From 1976 to 1979 she was a member of the University's Board of Governors.

Dr. Spencer was elected to fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada in 1976 and is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal. In 1984 she was named a "university professor" — only 10 professors had previously received this prestigious designation introduced at the University in 1967.

The honors, she admits, have been gratifying. However her greatest satisfaction, she says, comes from the many good students who have gone on to great things. "For any university professor," she says, "the real joy is working with his or her students."

Published Summer 1990.

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