Renowned physicist Dr. Paul Corkum (’65, ’06 HON) was very much like most undergraduate students when he arrived at Acadia University in the early 1960s. He came to campus thinking one thing and ended up pursuing something entirely different on an academic journey that has accomplished much and accrued countless accolades and honours locally, nationally and internationally.
The oldest of three children, Paul came to Wolfville from Saint John, NB because his mother, a Baptist who valued Acadia’s denominational roots, wanted him to obtain a university education. Paul started his post-secondary career with a degree in engineering in mind, but a transformative experience in a physics course with Professor Raymond Magarvey (’49) changed all that. Finding his passion, Paul gravitated toward physics, taking every physics course he could after that and spending his summers doing real-world research with Magarvey until graduation.
Paul wrote his first scientific paper at Acadia, basking in the unique kind of faculty support that was available then and continues to this day. The University was smaller in the early 1960s: there were fewer students; everyone knew one another; avenues of inquiry were intense; and people were treated to the kind of foundational, personalized learning experience that has become the hallmark of an Acadia education.
One of those other students was Nadja (’66) Nafthal, who arrived on campus in 1963 to study literature. It was the culmination of a youthful ambition, fueled by a desire for bigger things. “Even as a little girl in elementary school,” Nadja recalls, “every time my parents drove to Kentville and Wolfville, I would look longingly at Acadia, and dream of going there (even though I did not really know what one learned there). Good thing I got there, though, as I not only got my degree, but my husband too, and have very happy memories of those years. Acadia was the perfect place for both of us!”
She and Paul had their first date about a month after her arrival and they have been together ever since. They married in June 1965, two months before heading to the United States. Nadja was 19, Paul was 21.
Remarkable academic and research career
Paul obtained a Master’s and PhD from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He joined the National Research Council of Canada in 1973 and began a remarkable academic and research career in which he has produced almost 300 peer-reviewed papers and supervised more than 60 graduate students, helping them to launch their own academic careers.
His revolutionary research in attosecond physics and laser science has captured the attention of the scientific community and paved the way for future discoveries. He holds a chair in Attosecond Photonics at the University of Ottawa and this Order of Canada recipient is often referred to as ‘the father of attoseconds.’
Paul has been celebrated around the world for his ground-breaking work, having received numerous international awards. One that gives him particular pleasure is the Progress Medal of the Royal Photographic Society of London, awarded to him in 2013. The Society’s oldest medal, he shares it with such luminaries as George Eastman and David Attenborough. Paul’s name was also prominent in 2015 as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Acknowledged also for his work by Acadia, Paul received an honorary degree in 2006 and was named an Acadia Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award recipient in 2015. He says, “the grounding in physics, the family atmosphere, and the wise advice I received at Acadia have been critical to my career.”
While Nadja took a Master’s degree in education from Lehigh University and then taught school in Pennsylvania, on return to Canada she became a professional writer. Her first big break was to write a children’s history called How Canada Got its Capital. Published by McLellan and Stewart, it sold about 10,000 copies. She then went on to form a writing, editing and graphic design company which grew to a total of 10 employees concentrating mainly on writing for the federal government. She closed the company in 2011, but continued to teach writing for a few more years for Nexient and to science-based institutions in Canada and Germany.
Characteristically, both Paul and Nadja extol the virtues of a post-secondary education and embrace the kind of learning experience that Acadia offers. They have generously established the Corkum Scholarship in Physics to benefit undergraduate students.
Corkum Scholarship in Physics: Established in 2019 by Paul (’65) and Nadja (’66) Corkum. To be awarded on the basis of academic achievement to entering students majoring in Physics in the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science, and renewable for three subsequent years contingent on academic performance. One new scholarship will be offered every second year.
The goal: to enable students to explore their passion, do research, and determine its impact on everyday life. It’s not so different from what Paul had in mind more than 50 years ago when he began his academic career at Acadia. He was thoughtful and curious, thirsty for knowledge, intent on embracing early educational experiences and transcending them.
Paul and Nadja are dedicated to supporting similar such potential with their generosity that will encourage generations of Acadia students to build solid academic foundations upon which someone, someday, might also produce research that will change the world and perhaps be considered for a Nobel Prize.
By Fred Sgambati