Women in Physics: Dr. Diane Nalini de Kerckhove
October 19, 2017
This post is part of an ongoing series by Jenny Kliever about women in physics who have inspired others and contributed to the field in unique and impressive ways. The Canadian Journal of Physics will be publishing a special issue on women in physics in 2018. Keep up to date on all CJP activities by signing up for the CJP newsletter.
Some people go through life following a traditional or linear career path, others listen to the fire inside and pursue it relentlessly. Diane Nalini de Kerckhove fits into the second category. She has managed to merge her passions for physics, music, new cultures, and traveling into her career, achieving amazing accomplishments in each facet and maintaining a constant hunger for education.
Dr. de Kerckhove was attracted to physics early on in her life while at Dawson College, a pre‑university program (or CEGEP) in Quebec, Canada. "That was where my passion for physics was awoken," she says. "I had some very inspiring physics teachers at Dawson, particularly Richard Shoemaker, who presents physics so logically that I felt I couldn't really do anything else... it was so alluring." At the same time, another passion of hers was launched into action when Dawson hired de Kerckhove for her first paid gig as a jazz singer.
She completed her undergraduate degree in Honours Physics at McGill University in Montreal, where she was a national Loran Scholar and held the Greville Smith scholarship and the NSERC Women in Engineering and Science research scholarship.
"McGill's Honours Physics programme was quite intense," she says, "and I balanced that by taking all my electives in music. During this time, I started gigging regularly around Montreal in local jazz clubs and restaurants on weekends, and I also played the Montreal Jazz Festival for the first time."
Pursuing both music and physics worked well until she came to a crossroads at the end of her undergraduate degree. "I was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford and also a recording contract with a small Montreal indie jazz label. I received good advice from a musician friend who told me that I'd always be able to record a record in the future, but the Rhodes would only come into my life once."
So, de Kerckhove went off to England to start her PhD at Oxford. Choosing a specific area within physics to pursue was a tough decision she recalls, "I was drawn to astronomy but when I arrived at Oxford, I was fascinated by a poster I saw on the wall of the nuclear physics department depicting how x-ray spectroscopy had been used to authenticate a Vermeer painting by analysis of the pigments for lead and other metals and matching it to known Vermeer paintings. That, I thought, was the cat's meow: a technique that used physics to elucidate art."
She completed her PhD in the Department of Materials, working in applied nuclear physics. Her research focused on developing a novel "beam-rocking" system that she used to study strain in various alloys. "I also got to do a lot of general analysis work on some pretty nifty samples," she says, “including looking at arsenic distribution in Napoleon Bonaparte's hair, looking for trace impurities in Ötzi (the Iceman's) hair and nails, and several Inca mummy samples too."
During her PhD, she adventurously moved to a third continent, Australia, for a one-year travelling scholarship with the Association of Rhodes Scholars in Australia to work with the ion beam analysis group at the University of Melbourne. There she built a similar system to the one she had built at Oxford. "It was an amazing experience. Australia is such a beautiful country and people are so friendly. I almost didn't want to come back!" she says.
After graduating, she stayed at Oxford as a post-doctoral fellow, where she received a Royal Exhibition of 1851 Research Fellowship and a Junior Research Fellowship at New College. About her time in England, she reflects enthusiastically. "It was an amazing experience meeting and interacting with some of the finest minds in all areas—philosophy, literature, science, law, economics. I recall in one week having to choose between Martha Nussbaum's lecture on Aristotle and Love, Mikhail Gorbachev speaking at the Sheldonian Theatre, and Seamus Heaney reading from his latest work. We were so spoilt for choice."
She didn’t let her momentum in music fade while in England either. In fact, she released her first two CDs there, and came back to Montreal after her post-doctoral position finished to pursue music full time for a while. "I was gigging four nights a week and finishing writing music for my third album, which I recorded and released in 2005."
In 2005, she accepted a physics teaching position at the CEGEP, Marianopolis College. "I really enjoyed teaching," she says, "but realized I was missing doing research and learning new things. So, when a faculty position opened at the University of Guelph, my thesis supervisor in the UK recommended to me that I apply."
de Kerckhove was at the University of Guelph (U of G) for about five and a half years where she taught and ran a research group. While there, she also released her fourth album entitled Kiss Me Like That. "I found a way to marry physics and music in this album," she says, "I wrote the title track initially as something I thought I'd use when teaching General Astronomy to undergraduates at Guelph. It comes from the mnemonic 'Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me', which helps students remember the order of stars along the Main Sequence. I realized I had already written quite a few songs that were influenced by astronomy... and I decided to record them and to include some jazz standards that have a starry theme."
During her time at U of G, she also attended the very first Canadian Science Policy Conference. "I became fascinated by the intersection of science and policy. I heard how much governments need people who can translate complex scientific matters for policymakers and I thought that would be fascinating."
She made the difficult decision to leave academia in 2010 and accepted a position as a Senior Policy Analyst for Environment and Climate Change Canada, where she worked on climate change and air pollution policy. She was also a member of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe meetings in Geneva, and later attended negotiations as head of delegation for Canada. She was also the Canadian delegate for the Arctic Council Task Force on Short-Lived Climate Forcers, where they developed mitigation recommendations to Ministers of Arctic countries. "The work was extremely interesting because it involved a strong intersection of science, policy, economics, and environmental protection," she says.
Dr. de Kerckhove now works on assignment at the Privy Council Office. She is helping develop a framework for the Federal Public Service to become a more healthy and productive workforce. "I find it incredible to see all that the Public Service does for Canadians across its nearly 300 organizations," she says.
When asked about her future, she laughs and says, "I feel like I'm still on the journey of finding out what I want to be when I grow up. The main driving forces in terms of career aspirations for me are to always learn new and interesting things, to work with great people, and to work on things that I think are worthy, and make the world a better place, even if only in a small way. If those three things are fulfilled, I'm happy."
Header image: Cyril Band
Jenny Kliever is a science communicator with a passion for the physical sciences. She completed a Bachelor of Science in Physics at the University of Guelph and a Master in Science Communication at Laurentian University. Currently, she is the Communications Officer for the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology in Spain, and also works remotely for the Canadian Association of Physicists.