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Very rubin observatory, Credit: Rubin Obs/NSF/AURA

Flash of insight opens new paths for Luke Santi Award winner

account_circle By Tenille Bonoguore, Angela Hovdestad
Mackenzie Pereira, a first-year physics student at McGill University, is this year’s recipient of Perimeter’s Luke Santi Memorial Award for Student Achievement.

Mackenzie Pereira’s running shoes were pounding the trail as she followed it towards the sunset. Then, her world shifted.

The planet, she realized, was functioning as a treadmill. She had a sudden, keen view of the Earth’s axis spin; the sun’s position relative to the Earth’s revolution; the path of her own movement relative to both.

That fleeting moment sparked a journey that has taken her far beyond that British Columbia trail. Now a student at McGill University in Montreal, Pereira took time in early March to visit Perimeter Institute, where she formally received the 2019 Luke Santi Memorial Award and traded her running sneakers for a day in the shoes of a researcher.

Originally from Burnaby, British Columbia, Pereira is nearing the end of her first year of an undergraduate physics degree. In her application essay for the award, Pereira credits that day at running practice for helping her find her path.

“I wouldn’t want to go back to a time before my worldview became entangled with the complexities of science and physics, because it is now such an integral aspect of my personality and perspective,” she said.

The Luke Santi Memorial Award for Student Achievement is presented annually to a Canadian high school student who embodies the qualities of Luke Santi, a young friend of Perimeter who pursued his passion for research and discovery while earning top marks, demonstrating leadership, and volunteering his time in service of others.

Pereira embodies that mix of discovery and dedication. As a high school student, she was involved in soccer and cross country running, debate teams and the model UN club, jazz and concert choirs, as well as extracurricular astronomy and physics clubs.

“I found a bunch of different passions, interests, and talents that I wouldn’t have known about if I wasn’t involved,” said Pereira. “I think every time you do something new, you learn something new as well. You also meet a lot of different people.”

Her high school physics teacher, Joseph Muise, was a big influence. “It’s not that he would tell us to do things, or tell us that we were good or smart, he would just give us opportunities and say ‘Here; seems like a good fit.’ And then we would do them and we would realize it ourselves,” she said.

It was Muise who nudged her towards the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron’s “Students on the Beamlines” program. During the 2018–19 academic year, Pereira and a team of students created their own science experiment and received dedicated time on the CLS’s particle accelerator to run their experiment and obtain data. Muise also pointed her towards the UBC Outer Space Institute fall conference in 2018, where she again had a moment of clarity.

“They had a bunch of different speakers talking about space. Before that point, I hadn’t realized that studying things related to space was a viable career opportunity. There are careers beyond being astronauts. It’s so multifaceted and there are so many interesting areas.”

Pereira is now leaning toward a career in space policy. “By creating global standards of safety that do not hinder the potential of science, but hold it accountable, I am confident that humanity will continue to learn from our environment without the condition of harming it,” she noted in her application essay.

Much like that day on the trail, she’s aiming to knit together understanding and experience in order to reach a higher goal.

“I can understand the thrill of innovation and the need to quench curiosity, but I also understand the importance of leaving natural places better than how we found them.”

Mackenzie Pereira receives the Luke Santi Award with the Santi family
Mackenzie Pereira (centre) is pictured with members of the Santi family as she receives the 2019 Luke Santi Memorial Award.

About PI

Perimeter Institute is the world’s largest research hub devoted to theoretical physics. The independent Institute was founded in 1999 to foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe, from the smallest particles to the entire cosmos. Research at Perimeter is motivated by the understanding that fundamental science advances human knowledge and catalyzes innovation, and that today’s theoretical physics is tomorrow’s technology. Located in the Region of Waterloo, the not-for-profit Institute is a unique public-private endeavour, including the Governments of Ontario and Canada, that enables cutting-edge research, trains the next generation of scientific pioneers, and shares the power of physics through award-winning educational outreach and public engagement. 

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