A Valentine’s match made in Vanier heaven

Grad students find common ground despite disparate research areas.


They say opposites attract, and Michelle Campbell and Pawel Mekarski are certainly on opposite ends of the research spectrum—she studies ancient marine animals, and he studies invisible particles from space known as neutrinos—but the two couldn’t be closer in love and life.

Not only did they both choose to come to the University of Alberta for the renowned reputations of their respective research areas and supervisors, but they also fast-tracked into PhD programs after just a year in their master’s programs, each earning prestigious Vanier scholarships along the way.

Oh—and they happen to be getting married this summer.

Both from Ottawa, the pair lived parallel lives as undergrads when they competed in the sport of lifesaving, the only known sport in the world where participants first learn the skills for a humanitarian purpose (lifeguarding) and only later use them in competition—he playing for UOttawa and she for Queen's. Though they never met while they were opposing teammates, they managed to meet in the summer of 2012 while they both played for the Ottawa Valley Lifesaving Club.

That was when fate dealt them a card that would forever change the course of their lives.

“I had been emailing around that summer looking for grad schools to start the following September,” says Campbell. “I was emailing [biological sciences professor] Mike Caldwell to arrange a meeting at the U of A. He got back to me a week later and said he had some funding available and asked whether I wanted to start school in a month.”

Campbell leapt at the chance to study with Caldwell, an internationally renowned evolutionary biologist. Inspired perhaps by her own underwater adventures, Campbell’s PhD research is centred on aquatic adaptation, focusing on squamates—the group that includes lizards and snakes. “I am specifically looking at mosasaurs because they have a really good transitional fossil record from a terrestrial organism up to a fully aquatic top predator,” she explains.

First comes science…

Though Campbell and Mekarski began dating just a few months before Campbell started grad school, Mekarski had already decided that October that he too wanted to come to the U of A.

“I always wanted to get my graduate degree,” says Mekarski. “I was working for Health Canada at the Radiation Protection Bureau, doing detector research on a really small scale. The U of A has a really good particle physics program. It was all the same kind of research I was used to doing, except on a much larger scale. Think moving from a kilogram to a kilotonne. I applied and started the year after.”

“He’s such a copycat,” jokes Campbell of their trajectory to the U of A, switching to PhDs after just one year of master’s studies, and receiving Vanier scholarships.

“Pretty much,” echoes Mekarski. “It’s the exact same story, just duplicated”—with the exception of their research focus, of course.

Mekarski is part of the U of A team working with the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO+) Collaboration with his supervisor, Carsten Krauss. “The ultimate goal of all of us working with our super large detector is to see if the neutrino is its own antiparticle,” he explains of the elusive particle close to the top of everyone’s mind, given its recent recognition through the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics as well as Art McDonald’s Nobel Prize win in 2015.

How does the pair balance life with their studies?

“Both of us approach graduate school as a job,” says Campbell. “We work regular hours, and then we go home and try to leave it here.”

The former competitive swimmers even manage a dip in the pool a couple of times a week and now play water polo in a recreational league. Their wedding is planned for July 2016 back in Ottawa. Though the two haven’t decided on their honeymoon yet, they’re dreaming of the Galapagos.

As for school, Campbell is aiming to finish her PhD in the summer of 2017, and Mekarski is planning on completing his in the summer of 2018. Whatever is in store for the couple, it is clear that these Vanier scholars can look forward to sharing a bright future.