“They call me a legend,” says Judith C. Poë, a beloved professor of chemistry at UTM. Poë, who joined the UTM faculty in 1970, humbly thinks that the expression refers to her age. However, she couldn’t be farther from the truth as she is a legend. A chemistry legend.
In high school, Poë completed all the available science and mathematics classes but had originally intended to pursue journalism. However, everything changed when she first studied chemistry. “There I found a fascinating topic which began to give me an understanding of so many of the observations that we make every day, as well as a science that allowed for the creation of next things. I was hooked,” she says.
Poë attended University of London’s Imperial College of Science and Technology for her undergraduate and post-graduate studies. With time and study, she became particularly intrigued by inorganic chemistry, the study of the fundamental principles of bonding and reaction mechanisms. She selected bioinorganic chemistry as her specialization, wherein she studied “the mechanisms by which metalloenzymes catalyze metabolic reactions with the aim of synthesizing biomimetic metal ion complexes that could be used as substitutes for defective or missing metalloenzymes. Over the years this evolved into an interest in metal-based drugs and their use in the treatment of disease.”
Poë also channels her passion for this topic in the CHM333H5: Bioinorganic Chemistry course that she teaches.
Throughout university, Poë faced the same adversities that many students face today. She was required to take courses in order to fulfill her program requirements and found it limiting to not to be able to diverge and explore various additional interests. In order to graduate, she was required to pass two language translation exams. French, she was familiar with from high school, but German, she knew not a single word. Therefore, in the week preceding the exam, she spent every waking hour translating German chemistry papers to English. From this experience she learned, as all students do at one point, that although cramming can effectively lead to doing well on an exam, it is not necessarily learning.
Poë moved to Canada with her first husband and they both began their careers at UTM, then referred to as Erindale College. As Poë was from the United States and her husband, a British native, they found Canada to be a good compromise of both their cultures and a good place to settle. UTM was seeking fresh and forward-thinking individuals and “it presented an exciting opportunity to contribute to the development and direction of a new institution.”
Next year, Poë will be celebrating her fiftieth year of teaching at UTM. Throughout her career, Poë has had many memorable moments, both big and small. Following student nomination, she was the first to receive the UTM Teaching Excellence Award in 1991. In 2000, she was the first woman to serve as the president of the Canadian Society for Chemistry and she proudly represented and promoted chemistry education.
Poë remains highly involved in the UTM community. She regularly participates in field trips and organized events with residence students. “My fondest memories of UTM all involve my students and how fortunate I am to have them as an ever-evolving family to which I can contribute and with whom I continue to learn,” she says.
The University of Toronto Mississauga has changed in many ways throughout Poë’s fifty years. The campus has transformed from one and a half buildings to the expanse that it is now. The eminence and significance of research has grown and the student experience has been increasingly enriched. Poë also remarks that the birth of the internet has had a profound effect on the way information and education is delivered, shared, and interpreted.
Poë has never stopped working on her own projects. An ambitious professor, she is constantly aiming to increase the educational level of chemistry at UTM and in the greater community. In recent years, undergraduate UTM research students, in collaboration with local high schools and under Poë’s guidance, have developed a system of teaching high school chemistry through problem-based learning. Next year, this project will be adapted into CPS401Y5: Research and Development in Science Education, a fourth-year course available to students completing a Chemical and Physical Sciences major or specialist program.
To any student currently in a STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—area of study, Poë gives the following advice: “Despite pressures from your parents, you don’t all have to aspire to be doctors. There are a multitude of other professions through which you can contribute to society while satisfying your intellectual curiosity. Follow your passion and embrace it.”
Poë is not only passionate about chemistry. She is also an ardent supporter of the Chicago Bears, an American professional football team. Speaking with her has truly inspired me in my journey as a student, and if you get the chance to connect with her, she will undoubtedly inspire you as well.