Governor General taps trio for top PhD honours

Special to Western News

Pierangelo Gobbo, who graduated with a PhD in Chemistry this past summer, is among this year’s recipients of the Governor General’s Academic Medal, an award that recognizes the outstanding scholastic achievements of students in Canada.

His colleagues at Western call him a “true Renaissance man,” but bring this up in conversation, and Pierangelo Gobbo will try to politely laugh it off.

He’s a talented artist. A musician. A highly ranked judoka. But Gobbo is also an accomplished academic, most recently winning the Governor General’s Academic Medal, an award that recognizes the outstanding scholastic achievements of students in Canada, for his PhD in Chemistry at Western.

Gobbo was one of three winners of the award this year. Mark DesJardine, PhD Business Administration, now of L’École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC) in Paris, France, and Yanxiang Wu, PhD Comparative Literature, now of Shanghai University, also earned the honour.

Lord Dufferin, Canada’s third Governor General after Confederation, created the Academic Medals in 1873 to encourage academic excellence across the nation. Over the years, they have become the most prestigious award that students in Canadian schools can receive.

The Governor General Award is only the most recent honour on Gobbo’s list of academic accolades which likewise includes the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, the most prestigious PhD scholarship in Canada.

Though he is honoured, Gobbo, who graduated this past summer and is now doing a fellowship at the University of Bristol, is still unfazed by the awards. His vision is fixed on “trying to carve out (his) own field” in chemistry, nanomaterials and biomaterials while he is abroad, with the hopes of coming back to Canada to work as an academic.

“My thesis was a starting point, not a finishing point,” Gobbo said. “I’m now doing research at Bristol developing biomaterials that can mimic cellular behaviour, taking my experience in organic chemistry and using it to create novel biomaterials.”

Before starting his PhD work, Gobbo came to Western as an international graduate student from the University of Padua in Italy, one of the oldest universities in the world. Looking for an opportunity to study abroad, he landed at Western as a visiting student six years ago, thanks to a collaboration between his supervisor at Padua and Mark Workentin in Western’s Department of Chemistry. Gobbo worked on nanosystems in Workentin’s lab and had the opportunity to work with others in his field across the province.

“It happened that I really loved Canada. I really liked the people; I liked the department. I got a good background at the University of Padua and decided to try more for an abroad experience, and decided to join Mark’s group for (my PhD),” Gobbo noted.

“I had a good relationship with Mark, the way he carries out research and handles his lab, so it was a really interesting opportunity. The environment at the Department of Chemistry is very collegial, so it was easy to set up collaboration and get some good papers out of it,” he continued.

Gobbo published more than 20 papers in well-respected journals while working on his PhD.

His work focuses on functionalizing nanomaterials. Nanomaterials are used in a variety of areas, he explained, including the textile industry, transistor electronics and solar cells, among many other applications in science. In order for them to be used, they need to be properly functionalized. Gobbo’s work looks at characterizing materials and finding an efficient and resilient way to functionalize nanomaterials through chemistry.

He recently earned a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship and joined the research group of Stephen Mann at Bristol, where he will apply his expertize on nanomaterials and bioorthogonal chemistry to the emerging field of protolife research. Gobbo also holds a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship.

“Ideally, I’d like to stay in academia and become a professor in Canada, hopefully,” he said.

As for judo, he calls it “the other half” of his life. He started training as a child and was hooked immediately, quickly earning his black belt and soon after, teaching all ages at the national level in Italy.

“I always loved it because of the values behind it; it teaches you self-control, to be humble, persistent – to always get back on your feet and keep fighting. You learn how to teach, how to communicate with other people and other judo students – I really like that a lot,” Gobbo added.

When he came to Canada, he noticed the judo community was particularly small, especially in London, he said. So, he started his own. He co-founded a club on campus and a club in London and started teaching all ages.

In the time that’s left on his schedule, Gobbo loves to paint with watercolours, and plays a number of instruments – though as a jazz musician, he mostly plays sax, he said.

“I hope to come back (to Western) and look forward to coming and getting the medal and seeing the campus and friends there,” Gobbo added.

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Mark DesJardine, PhD Business Administration

DesJardine completed his doctoral degree in Business Administration with a graduating average of 90 per cent and a dissertation that exemplifies scholarly excellence.

“There is no question Mark will be one of the most impactful academics in his field,” said Tima Bansal, Ivey Business School professor and DesJardine’s thesis supervisor.

The focus of his dissertation, The Causes and Consequences of Corporate Short-Termism, is on understanding how pressures created in capital markets affect the time horizons and investment horizons of corporate managers. He argues short-termism is the bane of business sustainability.

DesJardine has received numerous awards and scholarships for his studies, but his passion and work ethic span beyond academia. While completing his PhD, he won $20,000 for a business sustainability idea he presented to the CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies, and he obtained his Chartered Financial Analyst designation in just 18 months.

In spite of suffering from a concussion incurred while playing football one week before his interviews, DesJardine still managed to convince the faculty members at the top business school in Europe – HEC Paris – to hire him. Yet, despite these accomplishments, his supervisor feels “what really defines Mark is his character. Mark is humble, thoughtful, and reliable.”

DesJardine is currently an Assistant Professor of Business Strategy & Policy at L’École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC) in Paris, France.

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Yanxiang Wu, PhD Comparative Literature

Wu came from China to the graduate program in Comparative Literature at Western in 2009. Never having been to an English-speaking country before, she nevertheless delved immediately into the medieval and Renaissance literatures of England and France.

Under the co-supervision of Western professors Laurence de Looze (Comparative Literature) and John Leonard (English), Wu carefully and patiently built up an impressive and convincing original argument regarding both the relationship between astronomy and skepticism in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the pertinence of the writings of Nicholas of Cusa and Michel de Montaigne.

The thesis opened new ground for Milton studies, as Wu’s examining committee realized when they voted unanimously to nominate her for the Governor General’s Gold Medal. Her external examiner, the world’s foremost authority on astronomy in Milton, University of British Columbia professor Dennis Danielson, confessed to being initially skeptical about skepticism in Milton “but such skepticism soon melted away as I made my way through her cogent, learned and highly meritorious study.”

Wu’s thesis will undoubtedly be published by one of the top academic presses and it will be widely read by Miltonists and scholars of Renaissance literature.

She is currently a lecturer at the Shanghai University.