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Environmental ‘trailblazer’

Chemistry professor named one of 3M’s 25 Women in Science

By Claire Carter

A professor in Memorial University’s Department of Chemistry has been named one of three trailblazing Canadians who are creating a safer, cleaner environment.

Dr. Francesca Kerton has been recognized as one of 3M’s 25 Women in Science.

3M is a company of scientists and researchers who work directly with customers to improve homes, businesses and lives across Canada and around the world.

The 25 Women in Science program recognizes women who work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, an area where they have historically been underrepresented.

In 2024, the program is focusing on scientists changing the world by improving environmental sustainability. This is the first year it includes Canadians.

Going where women weren’t

Dr. Kerton says she became a scientist to solve environmental problems.

Dr. Fran Kerton in her lab in the Core Science Facility on Memorial University’s St. John’s campus.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

When she began studying chemistry in university, minoring in environmental science, none of the faculty were women.

She discovered immediately that she loved conducting experiments that hadn’t been tried before. She loved learning how things work.

When she advanced to the doctoral level, Dr. Kerton became interested in green chemistry — developing new, environmentally friendly plastics and using molecules to reduce the energy needed for different processes.

“People solve problems in different ways. A lot of research is teamwork.” — Dr. Fran Kerton

By the time she completed graduate school, two of the approximately 25 faculty members were women.

When she met scientists from different universities and learned she could travel the world while working as a scientist, her academic journey led her to Canada for post-doctoral research, eventually settling at Memorial University.

She has worked at Memorial for the past 18 years, advancing environmental sustainability through science.

“One of the important things 3M is doing through this initiative is making sure people know that there are amazing scientists and engineers who are making a difference in the world and who can potentially act as role models if you don’t have someone who looks like you where you are,” said Dr. Kerton.

Collaboration and equality

Dr. Kerton’s work is guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which emphasize the importance of addressing environmental challenges through interdisciplinary collaboration and equality.

Her colleague, Dr. Kelly Hawboldt in Memorial’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, suggested she work with the Newfoundland and Labrador Aquaculture Industry Association about identifying possible waste streams from fish and shellfish processing.

“If we’re going to tackle all of these crises around the world, we need to make sure everyone is at the table.” — Dr. Fran Kerton

In Newfoundland and Labrador in 2021, shellfish production was 3,731 tonnes.

In most regions, the waste shells and protein enter the landfill and decompose and produce greenhouse gas emissions or, if disposed of at sea, contribute to an overgrowth of algae, harming the full ocean ecosystem.

For the past two years, Dr. Kerton and doctoral students Sachel Christian-Robinson and Megan Fitzgerald have been focusing on how to repurpose discarded mussel shells from seafood processing in different ways, including as energy storage materials and in drug delivery.

It is this work that 3M is recognizing Dr. Kerton for.

“If we’re going to tackle all of these crises around the world, we need to make sure everyone is at the table,” she said. “That includes science and engineering. People solve problems in different ways. A lot of research is teamwork. Getting to hear different voices will help ensure that these environmental injustices get solved.”

Outside of research, Dr. Kerton says she enjoys mentoring students and helping them understand all of the career paths and opportunities available to them in STEM and beyond.

“Dr. Fran Kerton’s dedication to advancing environmental sustainability through her truly innovative research and mentorship epitomizes the transformative impact of women in STEM,” said Dr. Travis Fridgen, dean of Memorial’s Faculty of Science. “Her recognition as one of 3M’s 25 Women in Science underscores the significance of her contributions not only to academia but also to addressing global challenges.  We are proud to have Dr. Kerton as a distinguished member of our faculty, inspiring future generations of scientists.”

Dr. Kerton’s career has been marked by numerous accolades, including the Canadian Green Chemistry and Engineering Award in 2019, the Rockstar Supervisor Award from Memorial University’s School of Graduate Studies in 2020 and the SCI Kalev Pugi Award in 2023 in recognition of excellence in research and development in Canada.

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