Ella Thomson, third recipient of the Order of the White Rose scholarship: meet a "brain"... with plenty of heart
Ella Thomson is now a PhD student in electrical engineering at Stanford University, but she well remembers how things all started in her tiny kitchen in Winnipeg. "I was a curious kid and was good at math,” she recalls. “My dad and I spent hours in the kitchen, having fun doing science experiments.” A gifted, precocious child, the 2017 Order of the White Rose scholarship winner took her first steps in research at age 13, via an extracurricular mentoring program for budding scientists at the University of Manitoba.
Eventually, volunteering with people with developmental disabilities and caring for a great aunt with Alzheimer’s disease, she grew fascinated with how the brain functions. “What struck me,” she says, “was that my aunt’s long-term memory worked well but she could forget what she said five minutes ago.” Ella began studying the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in degenerative diseases at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre, and continued in that field at university. With a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, she mapped out a mathematical model for testing potential treatments prior to their administration. Nine conferences and two publications resulted from her research.
The rest of her career is a series of successes. Going into her third year of undergrad, Ella received an award for being among the top ten students out of over 6000 at the University of Manitoba and she finished her bachelor's degree with an average near perfection. Thanks to her commitment and leadership, she was a Prairies Region finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship. She also won—not once but twice, though she had to decline one—a Schulich Leader Scholarship, an honour bestowed on just 50 science students across Canada.
But Ella is more than just a “brain;” she also, and most importantly, has a huge heart. Seeking to make a difference in the world, this young humanist has always been committed to her community, whether as a student representative on various councils, as president of the University of Manitoba Efficient and Renewable Technology Hub (UMEARTH) or in the humanitarian arena. (She founded a group affiliated with Hope International Canada, which repairs used medical equipment for shipment to developing countries). "How am I doing all this? I try to manage my time as well as possible," says the 21-year-old. To relax in her free time, she adds, she enjoys playing tennis and reading historical novels.
She views her commitment to girls in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) science club as especially important. Having been introduced to science at a very young age, Ella—who is looking forward to a career in academia—is well aware of how lucky she’s been. “I find that starting science in high school is already late for girls. You have to get them interested at a younger age,” she explains, adding that her mother, a kindergarten teacher at a girls' school, particularly inspired her: "She practises science with her students and introduces them to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She shows them that girls can do anything they set their mind to.”