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A one-two Steacie punch for Paul Ayers in 2013

Theoretical chemist Paul Ayers has won the prestigious Steacie Prize for 2013
A one-two Steacie punch for Paul Ayers in 2013

Steacie Prize winner Paul Ayers

December 2013

Danelle D’Alvise, Research Communications


Given the array of distinguished awards and numerous accolades he’s garnered before his fortieth birthday, it’s hard to believe that theoretical chemistry hasn’t been Paul Ayers absolute passion since childhood.

“Despite the fact – or maybe because – my parents are chemistry professors, I came to science relatively late,” Ayers explains.

In high school, Ayers did internships in management and architecture, and then decided to be a writer. However, when it came time to apply for college, he settled on physics, adding math as his second major. After a summer research stint in theoretical chemistry with one of his parents’ colleagues, Ayer’s had a "transformative experience".

"I learned that I could use the tools I love – mathematics and physics – to study problems I find interesting – how and why chemical reactions happen."

Since then, Ayers has pursued a career that ranks him among Canada’s – and the world’s – leading theoretical chemists.

His most recent honour is the coveted Steacie Prize, widely recognized as Canada’s most prestigious award for scientists and engineers 40 years or younger. The Prize, awarded to an individual who has made notable contributions to research in Canada, is administered by the Trustees of the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fund, a private foundation dedicated to the advancement of science and engineering in Canada.

"When I first found out about the award, I was very flattered. Then, reading the list of previous recipients, I became intimidated," said Ayers.

"Like all honours of this type, it really is a team prize: it reflects the hard work of the amazing students and postdoctoral scientists who work with me at McMaster, as well as the help I've received from my distinguished collaborators from abroad. I couldn’t work on, much less solve, the types of problems I’m interested in without their help."

Earlier this year the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) awarded Ayers the esteemed E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship, designed to boost the career development of outstanding and highly promising university faculty, especially those with a growing international following.

William Leigh, professor and chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology, notes that soon after joining the department in 2002 as Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Ayers quickly gained international status as an exceptional research scientist, garnering two medals from prominent world associations.

 “The Dirac Medal is a particularly telling sign of Paul’s international reputation. He is the first Canadian theorist to be given the award and the only theorist in the world to have won both the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science (IAQMS) Medal and the Dirac Medal,” says Leigh. “Recognized as one of the leaders in deriving, implementing and applying concepts of Density Functional Theory, Paul has the unique potential to make substantial contributions to the field of theoretical chemistry, and richly deserves the recognition of Canada’s Steacie Prize.”

Ayers is the third McMaster professor awarded the Steacie Prize: Peter Maitlis, an organometallic chemist and a member of the chemistry department from 1962-1972, won the award in 1970 for his research on the preparation of complexes of transitions metals with acetylenes; and Jules Carbotte, University Professor, department of physics and astronomy, was also honoured twice in one year (1975) with both a Steacie Fellowship and Steacie Prize for his research in the electronic properties of metals, including superconductivity.

“Paul Ayers leads one of the largest theoretical research groups in the country, inspiring more than a dozen Master’s, PhD and Postdoctoral students with his innovation and creativity, and motivates countless undergraduates with his continued research excellence,” says Mo Elbestawi, vice-president, research and international affairs.  “We are indeed fortunate to have a scientist of such high calibre doing his groundbreaking research right here at McMaster.”