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Canuel selected for teaching award

Canuel Gets AwardAs a leader in the field of marine organic chemistry, Elizabeth Canuel could easily work at an organization where her entire focus would be devoted to research or time in a lab.

But something would be missing, said Canuel, an associate professor at the College’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). “I wouldn’t have access to the students that we have here,” Canuel said. “For me, they are the best part of the job. I have been closely involved in all of my former students’ research projects and it’s a team thing. I learn from them and they learn from me.”

Today, Canuel is well-known among her students as a hands-on teacher and caring mentor who has a genuine interest in every student and their graduate work. Her colleagues know her work as well. Canuel’s research has allowed scientists to better understand how human activities on land and natural forces alter the availability of carbon, or food sources, to ecosystems in estuaries such as the Chesapeake Bay.

At Charter Day this year, Canuel will be awarded with the 2006 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, the highest honor given to young faculty members at William and Mary. Her colleagues say Canuel is a remarkable teacher, mentor and researcher.

“Because of her thoughtfulness on a range of matters and her attention to the fine points of various issues, Liz is one of the most considerate and caring colleagues I have encountered,” wrote James Bauer, professor of marine science, in recommending Canuel for the honor. “As if these aspects of her personality were not enough, Liz has the rare gift of being extremely modest about any and all of her accomplishments, which only serves to underscore them. In short, she is a gem.”
Canuel said she is humbled by the award. She credits her husband, Emmet Duffy, a professor at VIMS, and her son, 8-year-old Conor Duffy, with her success. “They’ve won this award, too, as far as I’m concerned because they’ve provided me with the support I need to do my work well,” Canuel said. “It’s just a tremendous honor because looking back at past recipients, I know what excellent teachers they are.”

Canuel has accomplished quite a bit since arriving at VIMS nearly a dozen years ago. She was promoted to associate professor and granted tenure in 2000. She has won numerous awards, including the William and Mary Alumni Fellowship Award for excellence in teaching. Twice—in 1997 and again in 2004—she received the School of Marine Science’s Dean’s Prize for the Advancement of Women in Marine Science. Four years ago, Canuel almost single-handedly revised the lab component of a first-year marine science graduate class.

For the past three years, Canuel has served as chair of the school’s academic council, and her involvement has reached the Williamsburg campus as she has served as secretary of the faculty assembly and was a member of last year’s presidential search committee.

In the research world, Canuel is best-known for her use of biomarkers to better understand past and present sources of carbon in coastal waters. Carbon is an important source of food and energy for the organisms that live within the ecosystem. By examining fluctuations in the accumulation of carbon and its sources, scientists can measure the productivity of these systems.

“I like to describe biomarkers as molecular fossils,” Canuel said. “Most people are familiar with bones and shells and hard parts that you find in the rock record. Instead, I use the chemical structures that are preserved in rocks or the sediment record to understand carbon sources.”

Canuel researches how coastal systems—in particular how organic carbon in those systems—change in response to various forces such as changes in river flow or changes between wet and dry years. She also looks at the impact of human activities on land and their influence on the carbon cycle in coastal waters.

“Most people know about marine biology, but not a lot of people realize that chemistry is also important in understanding the oceans,” she said.

‘For me, [students] are the best part of the job...I learn from them and they learn from me.’
—Elizabeth Canuel

A native of Fall River, Mass., Canuel said she was not one of those kids who knew she wanted to be an oceanographer at a young age, but she did enjoy chemistry.

“I’m a little embarrassed to admit I was one of those kids who had a chemistry set when I was young,” Canuel said. “It was a subject that really captivated me because it seemed relevant and it also kept open a lot of opportunities.”

Canuel came to William and Mary in 1994 after completing her doctorate in marine sciences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a post-doctoral fellowship with the U.S. Geological Survey. Within a year of arriving at VIMS, Canuel received the CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, and she used a portion of that grant to start the Female Initiation into Research in Science and Technology program, which was designed to get more female high school students interested in careers in the sciences.

“The idea was to really give them a hands-on research experience,” Canuel said. “In the physical sciences and geochemistry, the number women still lags behind. The idea was to give these girls an opportunity where they could picture themselves in that setting, and with the appropriate mentorship, recruit more women into the field.”

It is that student-faculty interaction that Canuel enjoys most about working at VIMS. While at William and Mary, she has served as principal or co-adviser to seven doctoral students and two master’s degree students, served on 31 graduate committees and also mentored a number of undergraduate students at the Williamsburg campus.

“I like how refreshing it is to interact with the students,” Canuel said. “They are so enthusiastic and sometimes they look at data and see brand-new things.”