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Past Winner
2004 NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prize

Sharonna Greenberg

Master's Level

University of Windsor

The path that launched Sharonna Greenberg towards a prize-winning academic career in chemistry began by following in her mother's footsteps.

At three years old, Greenberg, the first master's student to win NSERC's new André Hamer Postgraduate Prize, was mixing up potions in her mother's laboratory. Shafi Greenberg was a research chemist at York University at the time. She used to pick up her children from day care at the university and let them amuse themselves by mixing acids, bases and indicators.

"You mixed all these clear colourless solutions, and they turned yellow, or pink. It was really cool," Sharonna Greenberg remembers with a laugh.

Twenty-one years later, Greenberg, now a student at the University of Windsor, is still mixing potions. And she still likes the colours, especially the colour of a polymer she created in her fourth year at the University of Toronto. By incorporating metal atoms from cobalt into a carbosilane polymer, Greenberg and her colleagues, under the supervision of Ian Manners, created an entirely new compound.

Unlike traditional carbon-based polymers such as those used to make plastic bags or Tupperware, Greenberg's polymer is brown, not clear. Because of the optical and magnetic qualities it has acquired from the cobalt, it has potential applications for computer screens or recording devices.

That potential to apply basic research to real-world applications is one of the things that attracted Greenberg to the field, she says. "It's interesting to think that you could make a difference in future technologies – that you could have a part in developing those kinds of things," she says.

Greenberg's academic excellence, research potential, communication skills and interpersonal and leadership abilities made her the undisputed choice for the Hamer award, which is being presented for the first time in 2004.

The prize is named in memory of a promising young scientist who worked with Arthur McDonald, the 2003 winner of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. McDonald, a professor and University Research Chair in physics at Queen's University, donated $100,000 from his Herzberg award to establish two $10,000 annual prizes for outstanding candidates in NSERC's master's and doctoral scholarship competitions.

Greenberg began her undergraduate studies in biology before switching to chemistry. The immediate, practical results and the fundamental perspective she gets from chemistry – as well as her experience working on the polymer – won her over.

"With something that's more theoretical like math and physics, it's not as tangible," Greenberg says. "No colour changes."

For her master's thesis at the University of Windsor, Greenberg is venturing into the science of catalysis – the process of creating the catalysts that drive chemical reactions (but are themselves unaffected by those reactions). She's looking for a catalyst that will encourage carbon-to-carbon bonding, which could be used by the petroleum industry to turn gases into liquids.

"I really like chemistry," says Greenberg, who enjoys the challenge of working towards a goal, but being surprised by the outcome. "You look for what you're trying to synthesize and you work towards that. It's kind of exciting."

As for Greenberg's mother – now a high school chemistry teacher – she can rest assured that her example served as a true catalyst to her daughter.