Allison Hanes: Curiosity guides new Order of the White Rose inductee

Zhouhang Amelia Dai became the ninth member of the Order Monday during a moving ceremony at Polytechnique Montréal.

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From the time she dismantled her mother’s favourite clock as a two-year-old to see what made it tick, curiosity has been a guiding force for Zhouhang Amelia Dai.

It encouraged her to learn about other cultures as a Chinese immigrant growing up in Saint John, N.B. It caused her to gravitate toward science, math and technology as a high school student. It compelled her to do her undergraduate degree in biological and chemical engineering at the University of British Columbia. It helped her secure internships at places like Tesla’s battery lab. And it has now brought her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is pursuing a PhD with a focus on the applications of electrochemistry on the sustainable energy transition.

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But curiosity drives more than Dai’s thirst for knowledge; it also embodies her approach to life.

A woman speaks at a lectern in front of a bouquet of white roses.
Zhouhang Amelia Dai makes a speech as the ninth recipient of the Order of the White Rose in a ceremony at Polytechnique Montréal on Monday December 4, 2023. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

“One quote that I really like from my favourite TV show, Ted Lasso, is: ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ It’s important for us to stay curious to learn more about a person or a situation than to jump to a quick judgment, even though it’s human nature,” the 24-year-old said in an interview.

“Two of my core values are learning and community. And I see myself working engineering, learning for life, working on projects that would benefit society — not just my local community, but community on a global scale.”

Dai became the ninth member of the Order of the White Rose Monday during a moving ceremony at Polytechnique Montréal, where she was recognized for her academic promise as well as her championing of diversity.

The $50,000 bursary was established to honour the legacy of the 14 women who were murdered at Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Barbara-Maria Klucznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault and Annie Turcotte.

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A young woman receives a standing ovation at a ceremony.
Zhouhang Amelia Dai gets a standing ovation after being named the ninth recipient of the Order of the White Rose in a ceremony at Polytechnique Montréal on Monday December 4, 2023. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

On the 34th anniversary of the shooting that forever marked Montreal, Dai was welcomed into the sisterhood by two survivors who now serve as godmothers of the order.

Nathalie Provost, who was injured during the femicide, spoke of what she has learned from French scientist and philosopher Albert Jacquard, who contended difference was the key to life. At a special gathering he attended at Polytechnique back in 1991 when she was still “fragile and destabilized,” Jacquard also told her that the trials in his life made him who he was, not his accomplishments.

“This sentence gave me courage,” Provost said, addressing Dai. “Behind the difficulties, the doubts, the closing doors, you continue, you move forward, you seek to become the woman you want to be.”

Extending her message to all the recipients of the Order — including Édith Ducharme and Sophia Roy, who were in attendance – Provost pledged her eternal support.

“Your dreams coming true will be a consolation for the shattered dreams of my classmates, victims of this horrible event. But I am just beginning to realize that this consolation may represent a heavy burden on you,” Provost said. “Every step you take, the steps aside, the setbacks, the falls and the steps forward — all your steps are steps that lead you to your dreams.”

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Two women smile at a podium during an award ceremony.
Zhouhang Amelia Dai smiles as she is presented with the Order of the White Rose trophy by Michèle Thibodeau-DeGuire. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Michèle Thibodeau-DeGuire, who hid under her desk during the rampage, presented Dai with the award.

“We can dream of a better world when we see all this talent,” said Thibodeau-DeGuire. “As you join this community of women — of heart and mind — your journey is a source of inspiration. You will play a crucial role for the future of our society. No pressure.”

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In a video message, two of her UBC mentors saluted Dai as one of the brightest minds to ever study in the engineering faculty — and also one of the kindest.

Dai said she is “honoured” to join the Order of the White Rose, which was set up in 2015.

She said she first became aware of the tragedy at the 14 Not Forgotten event at UBC, one of the many annual memorials to the slain women held at universities across the country each year, which also serve as catalysts for efforts to bring more women and diversity into the profession.

“The more I learn about it, the more I am touched by this. It’s really powerful and really inspiring how the Polytechnique and the engineering community at large came together and pivoted their energy toward how can we improve for the future,” Dai said. “It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come and how much work we have to do.”

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