Meet Vanier Scholar Carmen Lee

Carmen Lee, who is working toward her PhD in Physics, is a recipient of the 2018 Vanier Graduate Scholarship.

Carmen Lee is working toward her PhD in Physics and is a recipient of the 2018 Vanier Graduate Scholarship.

McMaster PhD student Carmen Lee, knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue a career in science. Inspired by her mother, a high school science teacher, her dad, a professor in Microbiology, and her aunt, who earned a Master’s in Physics, she was encouraged to follow her passion for science wherever it led her.

Lee is working toward her PhD in Physics and is a recipient of the 2018 Vanier Graduate Scholarship. She talks about how her research in the area of fluid dynamics could help improve the smartphones we use every day, her deep commitment to supporting women in science, and what she loves most about being in the lab:

On her research:

On any fluid surface (i.e. a liquid or gas), there is actually a layer about 100 nanometers thick known as the boundary layer. For reference, 100 nanometers is about 100 times thinner than Saran Wrap. Although it’s really small, this layer plays an important role in how fluids flow. We can theorize what’s happening in the boundary layer, but it’s very hard to measure, so we wanted to make a system that looks at what’s going on.

The way we do that is by making thin films made out of polymer, which is all around us – things like safety glass, or any kind of plastic you can imagine. We make a really thin film that is 100 nanometers thick, and melt it so it is a liquid and flows. In particular, we want to find out what’s going on when we have one type of polymer fluid and then we put a different polymer fluid on top – we want to see what happens when we see these two move past each other.

On how her research could improve smartphone technology:

From an application point of view, you can imagine your phone and there’s all these electronics that are very small and they all have plastic coatings on them because they have to protect them from things like shorting out, from corrosion, or from mechanical wear. But we’re making electronics smaller and smaller, so the coatings on them have to become smaller and smaller, maybe down to the hundreds of nanometers scale. So you can imagine, these coatings which are made of plastics get hot, and maybe they heat up and they melt. We want to see how stable these films are with time.

On what she loves about her research:

I love the hands-on work – I like being able to make things with my hands. I also like the aspect of problem solving. With experiments, there’s always an element of problem solving, where you thought about doing a sample prep one way, but it turns out it’s not as simple as you thought and you have to figure out a work-around, or you have to build something new.

On supporting women in science:

A lot of my efforts go into promoting women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). From elementary school until now, I’ve seen so many girls who are my peers decide they don’t want to do science because of socio-economic status, or they felt pressure to go do something else, or decided they didn’t like it because they felt like math wasn’t for girls.

I had the benefit of growing up with very strong female science role models like my mom who is a high school science teacher and my aunt who has a Master’s in Physics, so I never felt like science wasn’t for me because I had all these people encouraging me. I thought that seemed like a really great way to help people fulfill their potential if they’re interested in pursuing science. So that’s something I really want to give back to.

I’ve been heavily involved in GWIPA (Graduate Women in Physics and Astronomy)here at Mac and that’s phenomenal because we bring in female role models and professors that come to visit to talk about the path they’ve taken. It’s also a really great network of support among our peers – every female physics student knows every other female physics student.

On the importance of science outreach:

I think there’s a lot of stigma behind who is a scientist. If you ask a little kid to draw a picture of a scientist, you get an old white guy in a lab coat, but science is so much more than that. Scientists come from all walks of life, all abilities, and I think it’s really important to tell the public about what’s going on in science and all the cool stuff that everyone is doing, so I’ve been looking for ways to do this.

I recently I worked on an outreach event called Science on Tap where we invited three amazing scientists to present publicly accessible talks of some aspect of science that people may not normally get. We had about 60 people attend the event and I personally had some very interesting conversations with members of the public over a pint of beer.

On the best thing about being in the lab:

There’s that point in a particular experiment where you’re just trying things and seeing what’s going to happen. I love that sense of discovery when you find something new – that’s my favourite part of working in the lab.

Outside the lab:

I’ve been really into gardening lately, I have a back patio and I planted a bunch of herbs, it’s just really fun to watch them grow. It’s fun to see nature at work and it’s very satisfying to know that I helped them along!

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships are the Government of Canada’s most prestigious awards for doctoral students. The program provides $50,000 per year for up to three years to students who demonstrate academic excellence, research potential and leadership ability. Up to 166 awards are distributed each year by three federal granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). This year, 10 McMaster students received Vanier scholarships.



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