Journey of an electrochemist
By Kyle Bournes
Ashok Vijh arrived on campus as a PhD student in 1962 in the dead of winter. Having earned a bachelor’s and a master’s from Panjab University, in Chandigarh, India, Vijh was full of enthusiasm and hope, despite the season.
As a young student, he was looking to combine his academic aspirations with his spirit of adventure. Although he preferred English and the humanities, Vijh chose the path of science for his life journey, partly because there were more scholarships available. He secured a scholarship to pursue a PhD in Canada, starting an incredible life of scientific achievement.
Vijh left behind family, friends and much warmer mid-February temperatures for frigid winters, snow and science. The cold and solitude did not hold him back. Armed with a scholarship, enthusiasm and a thirst for knowledge and discovery, he started his PhD in chemistry at the University of Ottawa. He chose uOttawa on the advice of a Panjab University professor, Dr. M.L. Lakhanpal, who spoke highly of the institution and Dr. Brian Conway. The professor had studied under Conway in the late 1950s.
By 1966, the enthusiastic young scientist from India was now Dr. Ashok Vijh. He had planned to start his career in Canada, but job prospects were minimal. So he kicked off his career as an R&D chemist at the Sprague Electric Company in Massachusetts. It wasn’t long, though, before he returned north of the border, taking a position in electrochemistry at the Institut de recherche d’Hydro-Québec (IREQ) and making his way up the research ladder. By 1973, he was named a research master, the highest scientific distinction granted by IREQ and one based on the candidate’s international stature. It is a title which the 76-year-old electrochemist still holds.
Vijh continues to have a sense of wonder when it comes to the field of electrochemistry, which includes the study of chemical reactions caused by the passage of electricity between two electrodes as well as the chemical reactions that produce electricity, in fuel cells and batteries, for example.
“Electrochemistry has many applications in energy conversion and storage. All of the power sources in laptops, iPads and portable electronic instruments use batteries, as do electric cars, to fight pollution and greenhouse gas effects. In biology, electrochemical charge transfers are the basis of how our brain works,” says Vijh.
Over the course of his career, Vijh has reached levels of success that most scientists can only dream of. He is a leader in his field who has published more than 360 research papers and written six books on electrochemistry. He is a fellow of the Royal Society Canada (RSC) and served as president of the RSC Academy of Science from 2005 to 2007.
Vijh has received well over 60 distinctions from all over the globe recognizing his contributions to science. They include the Killam Prize — one of the most prestigious prizes for research in Canada — which he received in 1987 in recognition of his fundamental contributions to electrochemistry and the impact new electrochemical devices and industrial applications have on society. At the time, he was one of the youngest recipients of the award. Most recently, he completed a D.S. Kothari INSA Distinguished Visiting Professorship at the Indian National Science Academy.
When asked about the impact his education at his alma mater has had on his life, Vijh says, “My professors at the University of Ottawa, especially Brian Conway, inculcated in me the pursuit of excellence and originality in research.”
Who knows what more Ashok Vijh can accomplish? He has already done so much. His tremendous drive to uncover more of the scientific mysteries that exist will certainly not wane. Although, he is well past the usual retirement age, he is as lively as ever and will always be that young scientist who arrived in Canada over 50 years ago, looking for adventure — and a very warm toque.
Ashok Vijh on vacation in Aix-en-Provence in April 2010.