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This article was published 16/2/2011 (3221 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
She's served for a decade as Princeton University's first female president and earned accolades through her involvement in cloning the first mammalian gene, among other achievements.
But in the early 1960s, Shirley Tilghman walked the halls of Kelvin High School, sneaking Jane Austen novels into chemistry class and studying history under the tutelage of respected teacher Lionel Orlikow.
Toronto-born Tilghman, whose father worked for Scotiabank, moved often during her childhood, landing in River Heights in Grade 9. The noted molecular biologist has glowing praise for Kelvin and the teachers who inspired her there — some of them, at least.
"I think I got a superb education, really superb," said Tilghman, reached by phone at Princeton. "I had teachers that were as good as any teachers I've had before or since."
Tilghman would go on to study chemistry. But it was learning history with the late Orlikow, then a well-regarded teacher, later a senior public servant and school trustee, that captured her interest.
"He had this really profound impact on me... by pointing out that getting good grades isn't enough. That if you're not thinking critically and you're not engaging with the world, then the fact that you're a good student and can memorize well and get lots of As may, at the end of the day, not really matter very much."
Tilghman counted Neil Young among her classmates and, in a 2001 Princeton Alumni Weekly profile, recounted Young's mortification after she convinced him to sing backup in her short-lived girl band, the Ladybugs.
Her decision to study university chemistry stemmed, in part, from a longtime fascination with puzzles. But unlike high school history and English — the book lover fondly recalls her English teacher, Ms. Thompson — her chemistry teacher didn't hit a high note. Tilghman recalls getting in trouble for reading novels during class.
Tilghman had only good things to say about Queen's University, where she studied chemistry. But for Tilghman, who has spoken out about the importance of supporting women in science, Ivy League schools weren't an option. Princeton, for one, didn't admit women as undergrads until 1969, a year after Tilghman earned her honours B.Sc. degree.
Tilghman might have had Orlikow's words in her mind when she went to Sierra Leone on a two-year teaching stint after graduating from Queen's. She received a PhD from Temple University in Philadelphia, did post-doctoral studies at the National Institute of Health, and is known for her groundbreaking work on the role of genes in embryonic development in mammals.
"I think the most memorable moments for any scientist are the moments where you know something about the natural world that nobody else knows, that you've uncovered something new," she said.
"Those are magnified 1,000 times when you're surprised by what you discover about the natural world."
Tilghman served on the Princeton faculty for 15 years before being named president in 2001.
Last year, she was awarded the prestigious Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Health Research, named for endocrinologist Henry Friesen, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba.
Tilghman no longer has family in Winnipeg and hasn't been back since 1968. But then, she hasn't been invited.
"I would certainly consider it," she said.
"I've always felt a little sad that I never made it back to Winnipeg after leaving to go to Sierra Leone."