Dr. Sonia Thiboutot: Canada’s first female Expert Level Defence Scientist

A woman stands at a lab station with lab equipment next to her and in the background
In Spring 2018, Dr. Sonia Thiboutot from DRDC Valcartier was promoted to Expert Level Defence Scientist (DS-07), becoming Canada’s first female defence scientist to achieve this highest level in the profession. Photo: Jocelyn Tessier, DRDC Valcartier

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By Jennifer Hincks, Communications Officer, ADM(PA) Science and Technology

Close to three decades have passed since Dr. Sonia Thiboutot’s curiosity was piqued by a job posting in the Energetic Materials section at Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Valcartier. So began her career as an internationally renowned expert on the risks associated with munitions that has taken her all over the world. Her recent promotion to Expert Level Defence Scientist has made Dr. Thiboutot the first Canadian female defence scientist to achieve this highest level in the profession.

Her passion for chemistry was kindled by her high school Chemistry teacher, who was able to convince her how beautiful matter is in the infinitely small. After completing her Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, she went on to obtain her Master’s and PhD with the objective of pursuing applied research in the pharmaceutical industry. She never would have guessed that she would parlay her studies to work for the Department of National Defence. Even though her doctorate dealt with enzyme catalysis, she was excited to undertake the challenge of learning about propellants and explosives. Her work has since evolved to broadly include assessing the environmental health of weapons training ranges, identifying post-detonation signatures and managing the associated risks.

Her proudest professional accomplishment? To have been part of the team that has made Canada a world leader in the systematic implementation of sustainable weapons training. She led in this effort by establishing a strong network amongst a number of universities, the National Research Council as well as other national and international organizations including NATO. Her research also supports the strategic decision-making of a number of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) directorates, such as Director Land Environment (DLE), Director Land Requirement (DLR), Director Land Equipment Program Staff (DLEPS), Director Ammunition and Explosives Regulations (DAER), and Director Ammunition and Explosives Management and Engineering (DAEME).

Interestingly, one of the main findings of her work has been that military training ranges are quite beneficial to Canada’s environment. By assigning large tracts of land for military training, these areas are protected from agricultural or commercial exploitation, and they become the refuge for many plants and animal species. Furthermore, the various ecosystems located within the training ranges, such as wetlands and trees, contribute to the ecosystemic health of Canada by filtering water and reducing greenhouse gases.

Dr. Thiboutot continues to be motivated by the conviction that her and her team’s efforts to ensure the sustainability of weapons training ranges for the health of the surrounding communities and ecosystems, as well as military personnel, will continue to benefit the CAF, and Canadians, into the future.

One piece of advice that she has for aspiring defence scientists, especially young women, is go for it. There is a lot to be proud of about Canada’s Armed Forces, and the task of helping military clients attain their objectives is a worthy one. Careers in defence science also open unlimited opportunities for defence scientists to excel while serving Canadians.

“Looking back on my career, I have been privileged in many ways. My parents cared for and supported me along the way, as well as my loving husband of more than 35 years and my sisters, who helped me with my son during the peak of my career while my husband was living in another city. I also could not be prouder of my son. I am thankful to have been able to pursue graduate studies, which led to a fulfilling career with DRDC’s highly dedicated team with countless opportunities to meet and work with priceless collaborators from both Canada and abroad.” – Dr. Sonia Thiboutot

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