Awards & Achievements
NSERC Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering
2000 Recipient - Howard Alper
HOWARD ALPER is the first recipient of the NSERC Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering that recognizes his contributions to the fields of organometallic chemistry and organic catalysis.
Although Alper has spent most of his life as a chemist — his first passion was music and poetry.
At the age of 16, he spent time in Manhattan, mostly at 1650 Broadway (an area known for its numerous publishers) and Greenwich Village, trying to convince companies to publish his songs and have singers record them. One of his songs, of the country-western genre, was recorded and played on radio stations in the US and Canada; it was called I Shake All Over. Alper also contributed poetry to the student newspaper during his university years.
While growing up in Montréal in the 60s, Alper met Leonard Cohen in a coffee house; the topic of discussion was the meaning of freedom. Although Alper’s love of music, literature and poetry was and is still strong today, he left the world of Leonard Cohen and joined the world of Roald Hoffmann. It was a question of survival — a realistic and pragmatic outlook on how to make a living. Nonetheless, Alper’s creativity has played a key role in his career as a chemist. It seems that the leap from sonnets to chemical bonds is not as great as one might think.
Alper completed a four year degree at what is now known as Concordia University (formally Sir George Williams University). Subjects taken during his first two years included creative writing, poetry, anthropology, chemistry and physics. Alper chose chemistry as his major and subsequently completed his PhD in organic chemistry at McGill University. Although there were no faculty members who specialized in organometallic chemistry, his supervisor allowed him to pursue his own ideas in an area new to the department. Consequently, Alper’s creativity led him to design experiments that would lay the foundation for years to come. His significant contributions to science would involve the invention of new chemical processes and methods facilitating, in terms of cost and effectiveness, the desired outcome. His artistic nature has influenced his approach to research profoundly, resulting in elegant new science.
While at McGill, Howard met Anne, who was also a graduate student in chemistry. Following the completion of their doctoral degrees, they moved to New Jersey where Howard pursued his research on a post-doctoral fellowship at Princeton University. Meanwhile, Anne was a research associate at the Textile Research Institute. The following year Alper was an assistant professor at the State University of NY at Binghamton; within a year, Anne gave birth to twin girls. Alper remembers the shock of learning, just hours before their birth, that they were having not one but two babies! Ultrasounds were not common in 1969.
In 1975, Alper joined the University of Ottawa’s well reputed department of chemistry. With its vibrant atmosphere, the city of Ottawa also contributed to his choice to come to the U of O. While pursuing his academic career and making important contributions to the area of catalysis, he also became involved in departmental issues and was the department’s chair from 1982 to 1985 and again from 1988 to 1994. Colleagues find that his greatest contribution as chair of chemistry was his leadership in hiring high-quality faculty and in creating a collegial atmosphere. He was also instrumental in the creation of D’Iorio Hall which houses state-of-the-art chemistry and biology laboratories.
A long time friend and colleague in the department of chemistry, Alex Fallis says: “Howard leads by example in his role both as a researcher and as an administrator; high standards are at the forefront of what ever he does. As a human being, he has great generosity and enthusiasm; despite being very busy he always has time for people even if the meeting is very brief! He is a balanced man. He has a wide range of interests including the arts, drama, poetry, good food and chocolate. He works hard and takes maximum advantage of his diverse skills.”
Not only has Alper shared his passion and talent with the University of Ottawa, he has also become an influential member of other high-profile organizations. For instance, he is president of The Academy of Science of The Royal Society of Canada and in November will become President of The Society. A major achievement by Alper is the development of the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) into a valuable asset to Canada. PAGSE currently consists of 25 national societies and associations that work together, and with government, to advance research and innovation in Canada. Finally, he collaborates extensively with researchers worldwide.
Howard Alper is an individual with boundless energy and with the ability to accomplish a variety of tasks in a short amount of time. Colleagues and friends often tease him by saying that there are undoubtedly Alper clones running around getting all of the work done. Through creativity in all areas of his work as a researcher, teacher, administrator and proponent of innovation, he has contributed greatly to the research climate at the University of Ottawa and to the Canadian research community in general.