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Dartmouth student with high powered hopes looks to Nobel Prize winning Cape Breton uncle for inspiration

Keira Ellefsen and her uncle, Dr. Art McDonald. who holds a Nobel Prize in physics.
Keira Ellefsen and her uncle, Dr. Art McDonald. who holds a Nobel Prize in physics. - Contributed

Keira Ellefsen knows women face discrimination in high tech, her chosen field. She has one advantage: a strong role model in her uncle, who won a Nobel in physics.

Keira Ellefsen is in grade 12 at Dartmouth High. Her dream is to be a computer engineer in a high-powered environment like Silicon Valley. She has always been drawn to math.

“It is not subjective,” she says. “There are patterns. It is either right or wrong. I’m all over that.”

Keira Ellefsen
Keira Ellefsen

When she was nine, Keira wrote a letter to her future self: “Dear Future Keira, 10 years from now you should pursue computer science in California because…” She was thinking of Silicon Valley, the global capital of high tech.

“I want to love what I do,” she says. “Exploring is how you learn about yourself.”

Her parents have always been supportive and she recognizes she has “amazing teachers” in the sciences. And she has another strong role model: her Uncle Art won a Nobel Prize in physics in 2015. A relative on her mother’s side, Dr. Art McDonald is an experimental physicist who grew up in Sydney, Cape Breton. He was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on neutrinos. “He showed me that I could grow up here do what I want to do.”

As a child, Keira watched the Discovery Channel and Daily Planet — not YTV. When she first saw her father’s laptop, it was magic. “I asked so many questions,” she recalls. “I wanted to know how it worked.” She had her first computer at age nine. “It was like a baby to me. I did everything with it.”

She taught herself to program. There were no courses in her school. “It seemed so unfair,” she says.

She had a moment of self-doubt. Then she found some free online courses on programming. In sixth grade she saved her money, ordered parts and built her own machine. Even now, there is not enough about computers in the curriculum in Nova Scotia to help the next generation, she says. Her high school has only one computer course. “It is disheartening,” she says.

By grade 10 she had lost some motivation. “I was just floating along,” she says. Then she applied to the SHAD summer program, where hundreds of Canada’s top students experience the STEAM disciplines — science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics — along with exposure to entrepreneurship and networking.

When she didn’t get accepted, she realized she didn’t have the qualifications.

“It was the best thing that happened to me,” she says. “The next year I started to volunteer, took the hardest science courses I could fine and got my marks up like crazy. I studied until three in the morning and got up early to tough it out all over again.”

Teachers recommended her for math camp at St. FX. She volunteered at a lab, worked in a rec centre and tutored immigrant children at the Y. She got a 94 per cent average and made the principal’s list. In May she received a Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for academic performance, leadership and community service.

When she applied to SHAD in grade 11 she was confident. “I got in and I felt like I fit in,” she says. “Everyone was motivated and accomplished.”

Her campus was Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Every day was packed. They went camping. She tried highland dancing, rock climbing, canoeing and fencing. There were lectures on math and physics. Her group created a plan to build fire masks for household use. It was based on Keira’s experience with asthma.

She remembers seeing Dr. MacDonald give a talk on neutrinos at the Discovery Centre in Halifax. “It was a life-changing experience. He had heard about me. We talked about nuclear physics. He wanted to know how I was getting along as a young woman interested in science. I told him I have a lack of mentors and tutors.”

Dr. McDonald is based at Queen’s. At SHAD he showed up at the dining hall and spoke to Keira and some of her friends. He gave her advice on applying to universities. “I do like big cities and the idea of going to a prestigious university,” Keira says.

On a humanitarian trip to the Dominican, she realized how fortunate we are in Canada. “We have so many opportunities. There, the children have hope, but not the means.” She wants to start a club at her school where students can volunteer in palliative care. “It is humbling to see death at the bedside,” she says. “This is a taboo subject in our society.”

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