The two faces of Lynne Wolfson

By Candice O’Grady

A Zamboni slides silently over the ice, its engine drowned out by a metallic voice over the loud speaker calling out five minutes until the next race. In other years Lynne Wolfson would have been strapping on her skates and hitting the freshly smoothed ice. These days, though, she bundles up against the wind to cheer on the young speed skaters she coaches.

“I really enjoy the sport and I want to give back to the sport,” she says. “I really like the girls and recognize that there’s a need for long track coaches.”

Wolfson’s dark curls are pulled into a loose bun, peaking out the bottom of her toque. She smiles easily and chats away with people she hasn’t seen in a long time. Standing taller than most women there, she jokes with a fellow skating teacher about how out of shape she is. This means that she no longer trains for up to four hours a night.

Her parents mingle with the crowd scattered around the rink and in-between the warm-up buildings. Her mother will be clocking the races ,a familiar task to the 20-year-old who has skated since the age of six.

The snow around the oval rink at Brewer Park is packed down hard from many pairs of feet stomping to keep warm. At noon, the temperature reaches –24 C before wind chill. Despite the cold, Wolfson was lured from her physics books by the skating and the cloudless blue sky.

Although speed skating remains an integral part of her life, most of her energy has been put into school since she enrolled at Carleton University.

At 10:30 in the morning, before the trek to the oval rink, sun spills into the living room of her parent’s house. She has lived in the same house in the Glebe for her whole life. Sitting back on a flowered beige couch she says the hours spent pouring over equations has paid off. A math and physics major, she recently won one of the National Research Council’s coveted Women in Engineering and Science awards.

Wolfson says that winning came as a surprise.

“I’ve never won a large academic award before,” she says. “I’ve never been singled out as someone with potential, into a program like this.”

Nation-wide, 19 women are accepted into the yearly program. Valued at $33,000, it provides each winner with three years worth of summer jobs and a mentor in her field.

John Poland, a math professor at Carleton University, says that Wolfson is one of the top students in her year. Competition for the award, though, is stiff.

“There’s plenty of competition that she was up against,” he says. “Even from right here in Carleton there were extremely strong women.”

Unsure whether she wants to pursue physics or math for the next three summers, Wolfson says that in either case working with top scientists on research projects will provide her with invaluable experience. Many of the laboratories researching astrophysics, a passion that could become her life’s work, are on the West Coast. The excitement in her voice reveals this is a move she would happily make. There are longer-term implications for the program as well.

“Women who go through the program are highly employable,” she says. “If they were to decide not to go on to a masters they’d be able to just walk into a lot of employment because they have all this experience.”

The goal of the NRC’s award is to increase the number of women in the ranks of math, science and engineering. As a female math and physics major, Wolfson is in the minority in her field.

Poland says that supporting women in math and science is important. During his years at Carleton the number of women in the math program has fluctuated as high as 50 per cent. He estimates the ratio is now around 2 to 1 of men to women.

Wolfson is, in fact, the only second-year woman in her program. She smiles and says that although finding girlfriends is more difficult, neither her peers nor her professors have treated her differently.

“I’ve never really noticed gender issues at all, it’s like there is no differences between the boys and girls in my classes,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s almost felt like they’ve been a little more willing to help the girls but I also find that the girls are more looking to go for help.”

Wolfson has done her share of helping other students as well. Under Poland’s supervision, she worked as a teaching assistant for a second year algebra class in the fall. Having taken the course in the summer she was eligible to teach it by September. On the first day, she walked into her tutorial to find that four of her students were also her peers in calculus class. The experience was “really strange” at first.

“They were all a bit skeptical at first but then once they realized that I knew all the answers to their questions they didn’t really give me such a hard time,” she said.

The living room is flooded with sun and the time is 11:50.a.m. Due to be at the rink at noon, Wolfson dresses in her warmest clothes and heads out to the car with her parents.

After a short drive to Brewer Park, she navigates the crowd, heading for the warm-up trailer in which she hopes to find her former speed skating coach Michel Rivet. He comes down the stairs and walks to a sunny spot behind the trailer, somewhat sheltered from the wind.

Schoolwork has a long tradition of being untraditional in Wolfson’s life, according to Rivet. He remembers a number of interesting bus rides to competitions in Sault St. Marie.

“This one competition would always fall on the same weekend as exams, every year,” he says. “So it would be 9:30 in the morning and we’d be on the bus somewhere between Ottawa and North Bay and she’d be writing exams on the bus.”

Admittedly, those were not her finest marks. Carsickness would usually set in before the allotted exam time had finished.

Wolfson began speed skating because she wanted to do everything that her older brother did.

“I was a miserable skater for the first eight years,” she says laughing. “I always got beat by my sister and I’d often come last.”

In Grade 11 though, years of perseverance paid off when she placed in the top 10 at the North American finals.

In-line speed skating was a summer extension of long track, and Wolfson took to it eagerly. In 2000 she ranked third in the country for women.

As well as competing, she was also among a small group who sat around a kitchen table and founded the Ottawa Urban In-line Skating Club, which now has about 70 members. She served as vice-president of social affairs for two years and remains an active member of the group.

It took a third sport, though, to carry Wolfson overseas. In her first year of competitive cycling, she won at the provincial championship, placed fifth at the nationals, raced in the Canada Summer Games and just missed making the world junior team.

In the following year, Wolfson turned 18, becoming a senior in cycling, and missed three months of school to train in France.

The training camp was in Limoux, a tiny town in the south of France 120 km from the Spanish border. Although competing with the “big fish” didn’t lead to winning results on foreign soil, Wolfson placed in the top 30 at the senior nationals back home in Canada that summer.

The determination that has brought Wolfson to where she is today is a trait that Rivet says comes through in her coaching.

“She’s tenacious and doesn’t give up,” he says. “She has always tried for perfection and I think she’s passing off those characteristics onto younger girls.”

Standing outside a small red building with the results of the morning’s races thumb-tacked to its side, 15-year-old Lauren McGuire says Wolfson has been one of her long track coaches for three years.

“She’s really fun to skate with and there’s always things to be reminded of,” she says. “(Wolfson) will skate with you and it’s a really good way to work on technique.”

Although she is spending today outside in the sun, by Monday Wolfson will be back to her books. With two years until graduation and three summers working with the NRC, the question of what comes next is still far off. She has ideas though, one of which is doing a master’s in either astrophysics or abstract algebra at Cambridge University.

What can women bring to the fields of math and science?

“It is important to have a lot of independent differing views when you’re trying to find theories or solutions to problems,” she says.

“Women should (go into science) more for reasons that they are interested in science, that they want to be scientists, and they don’t want to not go into a field just because it’s not something women have typically gone into.”