Patience is an undeniable virtue in science, and not just in matters confined to the laboratory. Alison Thompson, MCIC and winner of the 2020 Clara Benson Award, recently offered an intimate account of the instrumental role patience has played throughout her career.

Thompson, who is a member of Dalhousie University’s Department of Chemistry, was the keynote speaker at CSC’s Annual General Meeting on 28 May. By way of expressing her gratitude for the honour, she pointed out some of challenges faced by the award’s namesake during her lifetime. Clara Benson, a Canadian chemist born in 1875, was one of the first two women to obtain a PhD from the University of Toronto and she would found what became the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. However, when she was inducted as a CIC Fellow in 1919, she did not attend the association’s welcoming dinner because women were not allowed to do so. Similarly, her gender prevented University of Toronto from making Benson a faculty member in the chemistry department, so she instead taught food chemistry in the Domestic Science program.

“She took the opportunities that were available to her and made them into things that were important and meaningful,” observed Thompson, who went on to point out that female scientists are still coping with inequities, including lower pay and higher rates of publication rejection. Nevertheless, she confirmed that she feels very much a part of the contemporary chemistry community, which enables her to unite her learning with a tangible impact on society.

The path to that place was definitely punctuated with some tense moments, she added, many of them caused by the fact that she stutters. As a graduate student still uncertain of doing her PhD, she never dared to answer the communal telephone in her residence, even when it was her prospective advisor inviting her to pursue that goal. When her roommate took the call, then handed her the phone, Thompson sat on the nearby staircase and steeled herself for the conversation — but to no avail.

“So I waited and hoped and tried different strategies and tried to force the words out and nothing came, for the longest time,” she recalled. “And he must have thought that she’d gone off to find me and that we lived in a mansion and that it took a long time to get to the phone. But no. I was there, on the stairs, with the phone right here, not being able to say a thing.”

Perched on an academic milestone that would shape the rest of her life, Thomson never forgot how important it was that the individual responsible for that opportunity had simply waited. “When I think about that moment,” she says, “that moment of being able to eventually speak and him being patient enough for me to be able to do that, it changed my career path.”

She had an even more pointed lesson in patience after one of the first public presentations of her research. An eminent researcher, who apparently did not appreciate the nature of her severe stutter, praised the work itself but went on to criticize her delivery of it. She retreated to a nearby washroom and cried, only to emerge and find another member of the audience who had waited by the door to meet her. He would go on to become a key mentor as well as the one who guided her to speech therapy that would be effective enough for her to deliver long talks in a professional manner.

“Because of the fact he took the time, he waited for me, again, he changed the career path that I took,” she said.

Such experiences have given Thompson a profound insight into the importance of recognizing and accommodating the needs of others, as well as inspiring her to ensure that she uses her position for a greater good. In that capacity she has assumed responsibilities such as chairing the board of SuperNOVA, a Dalhousie initiative that annually delivers science programs to more than 16,000 young people in Canada. Yet the challenges to respecting the needs of others can be relentless, as she discovered when a friend reviewed her application for a leadership award and noted two profoundly different “voices” in the writing.

“She said it was a different voice that talked about the chemistry community and teaching and outreach, compared to the person who talked about research, who was direct and inflexible,” Thompson explained. 

Upon reflection, she realized that she was unconsciously expressing her scientific activities in terms established by her background in the field. “I think that’s because all the role models I have as a researcher were male — people who weren’t interested in outreach, weren’t interested in communicating, weren’t interested in teaching beyond the fact that it was something they had to do.”

In this way, she concluded, this perspective did a disservice to the value that she placed on inclusivity, since she was not representing her full persona and inviting others to do the same.

“We can try to go beyond that and see that our chemistry community — which is the community of the future — can be broader,” said Thompson. “There are a lot of people who believed in me and there are trainees in my lab who need to believe that this is the right place for them.”

Above all, she insisted, there is virtue in accepting the uncomfortable awareness that you may not be ideally suited to your ambitions even as you are eagerly pursuing them, and even greater virtue in helping others to do the same.

“We don’t always get everything right and we’re going to make mistakes, especially if we venture into things where we’ve not ventured before. But I do hope that we can all keep following a path that can help individuals as individuals and embrace the idea of being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.”