A science fair fit for a king, or a Prime Minister

First-year McGill Engineering student presents his project to a rarefied audience

School science fairs, it must be admitted, are nothing new. Typically, a group of young students stand in front of posters or beakers, explaining their projects to nervous parents or equally nervous teachers. But a recent fair in Ottawa raised the game to another level altogether. Not only was the science above and beyond, the audience was also elevated. None other than Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the visitors, as the fair was held on Parliament Hill.

McGill University was represented at the fair by Kenz Zaghib, a first-year Faculty of Engineering student enrolled in the ECE Department. His work in Density Functional Theory (DFT) posited the use of quantum physics to predict ideal materials for use as a catalyst in the electrolytic process by which hydrogen and oxygen are separated from water. Long-term applications for the research could result in improved batteries and reduced costs.

“Prime Minister Trudeau really understood the technology,” explained Zaghib. “He was very quickly able to grasp not only the specific area of inquiry, but what the ramifications could be if this were to be applied at scale.”

The event was the 2nd Annual Prime Minister’s Science Fair, organized by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) in collaboration with Youth Science Canada. The latter is a volunteer-lead organization which since 1962 has aimed to bring science to the masses. In fact, science is already a phenomenon among Canadian children – 500,000 kids take part in science across the country each year, the same amount of children who play minor league hockey (!). But somehow, this enthusiasm does not last into the adult years, something Youth Science Canada – and the Prime Minister – would like to prevent.

This was not a first-time for Zaghib, who had been selected for the Prime Minister’s fair following his participation in the Canada Wide Science Fair in May 2018. He has taken part in the Canada Wide fair previously as well, demonstrating a commitment not only to science but to sharing his knowledge with others.

Zaghib had quite the opportunity to do just that at the Prime Minister’s fair, as other dignitaries present included Kirsty Duncan (Canada’s Minister of Science) and Art McDonald (Canadian Nobel prize laureate of 2015). This was also complemented by Dr. B. Mario Pinto, the President of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), as well as Members of Parliament.

Prime Minister Trudeau is well known for being something of a science geek himself; his succinct explanation on Quantum computing thrilled the twitterverse. Indeed, Trudeau has asserted that “we’re born scientists,” and that from infancy, we are all experimenting with and observing the reality around us. No doubt this is true, but in the case of Kenz Zaghib, it is also true that some of us are simply better at it than others.