By Shannon Boklaschuk
A University of Saskatchewan (USask) graduate who was honoured with a thesis award during 2021 Spring Convocation is also the first person to complete USask’s Cotutelle Program.
Dr. Jacques Desmarais (PhD) studied in the Department of Geological Sciences in USask’s College of Arts and Science, receiving his master’s degree in 2017 and his doctoral degree in 2020. This spring, he was recognized as one of three College of Arts and Science students to receive a Graduate Thesis Award for work done at the PhD level. Desmarais’ thesis was titled “Development of Tools for the Study of Heavy-Element Containing Periodic Systems in the CRYSTAL Code and their Application.”
Desmarais said “it is a great honour” to receive an award for his thesis.
“Being a researcher can be like being an artist, in the sense that you do things that are interesting from your perspective, but you don’t know beforehand how much other people will appreciate your work. So when other people give you the sign that they appreciate what you do, it is quite encouraging,” he said.
A high-achieving student, in 2016 Desmarais received a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship—the country’s most prestigious and competitive federal scholarship for top-tier graduate students. He was awarded $150,000 over three years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).
Desmarais is also the first USask graduate to complete the Cotutelle Program. A cotutelle is a type of dual-degree program in which a student is supervised by faculty members at two universities and spends time at both institutions. The student writes one thesis, under the supervision of an advisory committee comprised of members from both universities. The student then receives two degrees, with each acknowledging that the degree was completed as a dual-degree program. At USask, cotutelle PhD program agreements are administered by the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (CGPS).
As a result of the cotutelle agreement, Desmarais received degrees from two universities simultaneously—a PhD in geological sciences from USask and a PhD in chemical and materials sciences from the University of Turin in Italy. He noted that his Vanier Scholarship allowed him to choose where and how he wanted to study, and his decision to enter into a cotutelle agreement was based on the fact that he wanted to work with great professors at USask who excel at applying algorithms in their respective fields of study, and great professors at the University of Turin who excel at developing the algorithms.
“Given that development (and) application of algorithms go hand-in-hand, the option of a cotutelle seemed like an attractive idea,” he said.
Desmarais found studying through the Cotutelle Program to be a great experience. He said his USask supervisors—Dr. Yuanming Pan (PhD) from the Department of Geological Sciences and Dr. John Tse (PhD, DSc) from the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics—and his supervisors at the University of Turin—Dr. Alessandro Erba (PhD) and Dr. Bartolomeo Civalleri (PhD)—were keen on collaborating with each other.
“It is very nice to work with such people who are always open to learn from and work with others,” he said.
On June 24 at 1 pm, CGPS will host a livestreamed toast to USask’s doctoral students, including Desmarais. Dean Debby Burshtyn and special guests will honour doctoral graduates from spring and fall 2020 and from spring 2021.
Desmarais, who officially received his doctorate during Fall 2020 Convocation, said he decided to pursue a PhD in geology because he likes “to think of a career as an opportunity to have a maximum impact on advancing humanity.”
“My decision to do a PhD was essentially based on the fact that I thought that the setting in which I could have the maximum impact on advancing humanity was to do research in an academic setting,” he said.
Through his thesis work, Desmarais aimed to develop new computer software that would enable scientists to look at minerals deep beneath Earth’s crust, providing unprecedented knowledge about the composition, interior movement of materials and origin of our planet.
“More specifically, my PhD was about developing (and) applying algorithms and theories for solving the Dirac equation to study matter—solids, liquids, gases. In particular, I was interested in improving existing approaches to better treat materials that contain heavy atoms—transition metals, rare-earth elements, etc.,” he said. “In my case, the algorithms were applied, amongst others, to problems of geological interest . . . but, more generally, these types of algorithms are also extensively used in most fields of sciences, including biology, chemistry and physics.”
Desmarais, who was born in Ontario, said he knew from a young age that he wanted to work on “something in sciences that could have a broad impact on the world.” Near the end of his undergraduate studies, he started learning how to solve the Dirac equation.
“If the equation can be solved, it is thought that, in principle, the solution is accurate enough to provide an explanation for most problems in sciences—excluding a few phenomena in some fields of physics,” he said.
“The only difficulty is finding algorithms that are sufficiently computationally tractable for solving the equation. If the algorithm is faster, a larger class of problems of sciences can be solved. So I think that developing sufficiently fast algorithms for solving the Dirac equation is something that allows to have a broad impact on sciences, across many fields, which is very appealing to me. Developing (and) applying the algorithms also allows (us) to use skills from many disciplines. For example, it involves using skills in physics and chemistry, geology, biology—depending on the specific application—as well as mathematics and computer sciences.”
Desmarais is now doing a postdoc. It’s through a joint collaboration with the University of Pau in France and the University of Turin, under an NSERC postdoctoral fellowship, he said.
“I hope to continue doing research for my whole life.”