Celebration of Kaitlin Williams' Life with Guelph Physics

Posted on Thursday, February 3rd, 2022

Written by Christian Schultz-Nielsen and Sara Teskey

Sara Teskey (left) and Kaitlin Williams (right) presenting their final poster in PHYS*4500. Lab partners through their undergraduate degrees, Kaitlin and Sara enjoyed taking fun selfies together at the end of each of their undergrad labs. (Photo credit: Sara Teskey)

The Department of Physics is heartbroken to share the untimely passing of 2018 Physics graduate Kaitlin Williams on January 19th while attempting to recover from a heart surgery at the Ottawa Heart Institute.  Kaitlin enrolled in the University of Guelph as an Animal Biology major but discovered her passion for physics during first-year classes taught by Professor Martin Williams, who fondly recalls the constant laughter and sense of humour that Kaitlin displayed during visits to his office hours.  These traits would be a hallmark of Kaitlin’s 4 years at Guelph!

Once in the physics program, Kaitlin quickly established herself as a talented student and outstanding friend to her peers.  Kaitlin was very active in the Department:  she served as a student representative on the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, participated in the Physics Club displays at College Royal events, and was always the first student to volunteer her talents and time for recruiting and outreach events.

Kaitlin Williams' author photo for her group's Physics of Superheroes book, submitted as part of their science communication course term project. (Photo credit: Sara Teskey)

A lasting reminder of what passionate students can achieve in her Science Communication course, Professor Joanne O’Meara keeps on her desk the “Physics of Superheroes” book that Kaitlin co-authored for her final project.  Kaitlin was very proud to be one of the four students in the course to have her story chosen to be published on the popular Canadian science blog Science Borealis, and Prof. O’Meara reflected that Kaitlin was, “one of those students who left a lasting impression.  She was admired and will be missed by her physics family.”

Based on her excellence in computer programming in a third-year course he taught, Professor Alex Gezerlis agreed to supervise Kaitlin’s senior research project studying neutron-star theory.  “I offered to supervise her research project on neutron-star theory the following academic year; this started out OK, but then hit a roadblock, as is common in such projects. I have a vivid memory of how impressed I was with the maturity Kaitlin exhibited when owning up to the lack of progress and her detailed steps of how to move forward (which are typically suggested by the supervisor, not the student). By the end of the project Kaitlin had made her first steps toward independence and originality in a research project of her own.”  This academic maturity was characteristic of Kaitlin – she always took ownership for the inevitable struggles that are encountered in an undergraduate degree and sought to find a way around the problem.  A common reflection from those who knew her, Prof. Gezerlis summarized Kaitlin as a ray of sunshine in his interactions with her.

As one of the authors (CSN), my own interactions with Kaitlin were most frequently in the hallway outside my office at the end of the fourth floor of the MacNaughton Building that houses the Department of Physics.  From early in the morning until late at night, Kaitlin could be found sitting on the floor working away, always ready for a friendly chat where we discussed labwork, re-imagined undergraduate curricula, or discussed future careers.  I will forever cherish all these chats, and I can say that they helped make me a better instructor and a better mentor for undergraduate students.  While she was always intrigued by the idea of graduate school, Kaitlin decided she wanted to start her career by getting some ‘real world’ work experience, taking a software developer job in her hometown of Ottawa, Ontario.

For the other author of this piece (ST), Kaitlin was a fierce and loyal friend to all who knew her, and I had the privilege of spending most of my days with her, in and out of classes. At the end of every year, we would sit down together and make a list of our favourite memories, totalling more than 50 each year. But the best part of every year was always unwritten; it was getting to spend it with her. The toughest days were made infinitely better by her kindness, humour, and infectious smile. Outside of physics, Kaitlin was also a talented dancer, singer and performer of musical theatre. Every week she attended Zumba classes at the Gryphons fitness centre and she had a special way of inspiring and energising others. One of my favourite memories of her is from the 2018 Physics Fire and Ice Dance, when she had everyone on their feet dancing along to her favourite Zumba routine.

Kaitlin was fiercely proud of her University of Guelph Physics degree, and the Department of Physics is equally proud that we can number Kaitlin as one of our graduates.  Her passion for physics, the joy with which she approached her life, and the easy friendship that she extended to all those she met are perfect embodiments of the University of Guelph’s mission to Improve Life.

Kaitlin Williams (left) and Sara Teskey (right) at the University of Guelph Summer 2018 Convocation. (Photo credit: Sara Teskey)

On behalf of the entire Guelph Physics community, the Department extends our heartfelt condolences to Kaitlin’s family, loved ones, and the huge number of friends whose lives she touched during her too-short stay with us.  We encourage everybody to approach their own day-to-day lives with the same joie de vivre that Kaitlin shared with the rest of us, and we echo her family’s encouragements to consider signing your organ donation cards – one signature can change the lives of so many Canadians patiently waiting for a transplant.

On Monday February 7th, the Williams family has scheduled a Celebration of Kaitlin’s Life in Nepean, Ontario.  Details on how to participate can be found on the memorial notice published by Kaitlin's family.

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