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More than a love for science unites these researchers

Steacie Prize winners Shana Kelley and Ted Sargent share accolades as well as a home and family.


When pharmacy and chemistry professor Shana Kelley won the coveted Steacie Prize, which recognizes an outstanding Canadian natural sciences researcher under 40, in 2011, it was a personal coup for her and her team — plus a real nod to the University of Toronto, as this was the third year in a row a faculty member from the university had won.

But when, last month, it was announced that electrical and computer engineering professor Ted Sargent, also of U of T, was the Steacie winner for 2012, the accolades took quite a different turn.

Drs. Sargent and Kelley have been married since 2006, have two young sons and commute to work together every day to U of T. So we had to ask what a love for science and each other looks like for this talented couple.

University Affairs: Can you quickly describe your research?

Shana Kelley: I’m based in the faculty of pharmacy and also biochemistry. My team develops molecules to allow drugs to be more effective. We also look for disease biomarkers. We work with all kinds of nanomaterials, we use all aspects of chemistry and biology and engineering, and we put that all together to provide useful solutions to make drugs better and make diagnoses more effective.

Ted Sargent: My work relates to solar energy harvesting and trying to make better solar cells. Solar cells need to be cheaper and they need to be as efficient as possible. We’ve figured out how to make a solar cell basically as a spray paint: it’s a semiconductor you can spray on as a coating.

UA: Does your work overlap?

TS: The main project we do quite a bit of work on is making sensors for genes so we can detect the expression of genes in a biological sample. This is Shana’s field, she’s the person who brought the expertise here. I know about building integrating circuit elements onto a chip and how to measure them and understand them and things like that. I provide the means to integrate it and make it into a chip rather than one sensor standing alone.

UA: What’s the typical topic of conversation around your house?

SK: We talk about what we did during the day. We work at the same place so we know all the same people.

TS: It’s the science, the academic world, including the politics. The funding issues. Shana and I both have startups, so there’s running a company, working with a CEO, raising venture capital; all of those things are very much part of the conversation as well.

UA: How did the two of you meet?

TS: It was the fall of 2004 at a nanotechnology conference at the University of California, Irvine. She was at Boston College and I was on a sabbatical from U of T at MIT. We happened to be living in the same town that year, but we had to go to California to meet.

Shana was chairing a session and I was just one of the participants in a roundtable of about 20 to 30 people. I thought she seemed cool, very cute and very smart. She ran the show very well. It was certainly love at first sight for me: I could see she was beautiful and very elegant but I also admired that she knew how to run a meeting and knew how to get people thinking together rather than at cross purposes. We went on a date later in Boston, this French restaurant north of Harvard Square.

UA: Did you expect to marry a career-focused scientist?

SK: I was someone who never thought that much about the future or trying to meet somebody, I was always focused on work. But when I met Ted it was very clear there was a lot of chemistry and a nice fit with our personalities and the priorities we had.

TS: It was important for both of us to take on a life partner that we could understand and could understand us. I mean beyond understanding equations, but sharing values. We do share the values of hard work and integrity. We’re lucky we have those elements too, and we have a pretty good understanding of the other person’s research. We love it and we don’t turn off that part of ourselves at the end of the day.

UA: How has having kids changed your work lives?

SK: We used to overdo our work hours. Now, we’re very structured and we have a nanny who helps from eight to six and those are our hours to work and that’s it. We’ve both become more efficient in using those hours. For both of us, having children has really helped us be just more rounded; having a dimension to our lives besides work and our relationship. And it’s something we really enjoy.

TS: It has meant we’re at home at a certain time pretty much every day because we want to read books and build Lego Death Stars in the evening. It means we get more done in less time., How that impacts our research program is that our groups have greater independence and we have more expectations that they’ll do good work without moment-by-moment input from us.

UA: What makes your spouse such a great scientist?

SK: He’s very creative and at the same time he’s able to push a project ahead at a really impressive rate. He always knows what the next thing is to do. He has a great way of communicating to the people he works with. He’s constantly applying new methods and new approaches to the problems he’s working on.

TS: As well as being able to think at the highest level in her field, she can think beyond her specialties and understand what’s going on in other fields, like medicine. She can understand it and pull it all together. She can zoom out and zoom in.

UA: What makes your spouse special as a person and partner?

SK: So many things. He’s very funny. He’s very easygoing. At work he’s very intense and focused but at home it’s just whatever happens happens. He never gets in knots about little things; he’s just a wonderful person to be around.

TS: She has a great sense of humour and she’s very level headed. Often things don’t go the way you hope and she always stays positive and thinks of ways to get to the desired outcome. Shana is very even-keeled and I think the boys benefit from it and I learn from it.

A family profile

Him: Ted Sargent, 39, professor of electrical and computer engineering, vice-dean, research in the Faculty of applied science and engineering, founder and CTO of InVisage Technologies Inc.
Her: Shana Kelley, 42, professor of pharmacy and chemistry, founder and CTO of Xagenic Inc.
Married since: 2006
Kids: Conor, 5; Owen, 3
Other family members: Bernard, labradoodle, 6

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