Meet John Thibault: Entrepreneur, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and MSc, Physics

John Thibault had already accomplished a lot before he began his MSc in physics. A successful entrepreneur and (now retired) Canadian Armed Forces soldier, he was part of the United Nations Peacekeepers operation that was awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize.

Donna McKinnon - 30 November 2022

John Thibault had already accomplished a lot before he began his MSc in physics. A successful entrepreneur and (now retired) Canadian Armed Forces soldier, he was part of the United Nations Peacekeepers operation that was awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize "for preventing armed clashes and creating conditions for negotiations".   

Now “cooking up a PhD project worthy of pursuit,” John is keeping his options open.

Congratulations John!

What led you to choose your current area of study, and why the U of A for your studies?

I completed an undergraduate degree in physics at the U of A in 1990. I chose physics shortly after attending some lectures that were part of Reading Week in February of 1982. The physics lecture was held in P126, and was given by a most remarkable and entertaining gentleman who spoke about black holes and other fascinating phenomena. How did I end up on campus in February of ‘82? I was completing high school at Alberta College in the winter of ‘82 after deciding to leave the apprenticeship program for auto mechanics that I started in 1980. The physics teacher said, "don't come to class this week...go to the U of A and get familiar with what is going on there." So, that's what I did and physics jumped out as what I wanted to study.

Following this, I served for 13 years in the Canadian Armed Forces and took a release in 1997. 

In about 1990, I became a member of the U of A Golden Key Society. The professor I worked for in the 80s and 90s, Dr. James Rogers, nominated me. It was about my service in the army and, more specifically, the UN mission in Iran/Iraq, 1988. The UN mission was the United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group (UNIIMOG) and for the Canadian troops it was Operation Vagabond. I went to Iraq in August 1988 for a six month tour where we monitored troop and equipment movements on the border with Iran. There was another contingent of Canadian troops on the Iranian side doing the same thing.

The United Nations Peacekeepers were awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize, so I and many other soldiers that served as UN Peacekeepers are all Nobel Laureates and are able to share in the honor of having been recognized by the Nobel Foundation.

I worked as an electronics designer from 1997 to 2000 and then bought one of the companies that was part of the group of companies I worked for. Running my company, Terracene International, small as it is, has kept me very busy.

In 2014, I decided to return to campus for grad studies in physics. I chose the U of A since some of the people in the physics department that I knew from the mid 80s to early 90s were still there and because I needed to stay in Edmonton so that I could tend to my company.

What is one of your favourite memories from your time at the U of A?

I worked for Dr. Walter Jones and Dr. James Rogers as a summer student from summer

1985 to summer 1990. I graded assignments for physics courses from 1990 to 1996. My best memories come from the work with Dr. Rogers and the other members of the Tiltmeter research group. My favorite memories come from the summer of 1994 when we went to the CERN Accelerator to install the Tiltmeters in the Canadian Detector Hall for monitoring the stability of the accelerator ring.

My favorite memories from the time that I was working toward a graduate degree (2014 to 2022) come from the many conversations with the technical, academic, and administrative staff members of the physics department. There are so many good, kind and helpful people in the physics department and elsewhere on campus. I acquired quite a bit of knowledge and expertise from the formal parts of graduate work, but I think that I will remember the people as being the most important part of the experience. How we treat each other is far more important than what any of us know. I met many people that understand this concept.

Did you take on any leadership roles while you were a student?

No. I should have. It was all I could do to continue studying and keep my company operating. 

Did you face any significant obstacles or challenges during your program, and if so, how did you respond?

Yes, most certainly. The burden of graduate work does not permit divided duties such as maintaining a company or having to work to prevent financial disaster. I responded to the difficulties by extending my program. The extensions would not have been approved if it were not for the support of my supervisor, Dr. Mark Freeman, and the department staff. They were all very accommodating regarding my special requirements.

What advice do you have for current and future students?

Study while you are young and uncommitted! If the opportunity to study presents itself while you are young then take it. It is extremely difficult to start again 25 years later.

How do you plan on celebrating convocation?

I will celebrate in a rather quiet way by reflecting on my good fortune to have been able to complete the program and by recalling the help that so many people provided.

What's next after graduation?

I am trying to cook up a PhD project worthy of pursuit. For me, the project and findings must have the potential to be of use to someone. I have an idea, but I have not yet made a formal presentation to my supervisor. I am also very busy at work. My company derives its revenue from the refineries and from mechanical engineering companies. There is always plenty of work to keep me busy.