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Life Jennifer Shay blazed a bright trail for women in biology

Jennifer Mary (Walker) Shay: Wife. Aunt. Ecologist. Teacher. Born March 27, 1930, Kingston-upon-Hull, England; died May 7, 2018, Kingston-upon-Hull, England, of complications from Parkinson’s disease; aged 88.

Jennifer Shay’s love of nature began as a child, when she was given a pair of binoculars and discovered bird watching. An inspiring high-school teacher led her to study biology at London University, although a less-inspiring guidance counsellor told her that “women can’t be biologists.” After graduating with a BSc in Biology in 1952, Jennifer became the first female on the scientific staff of a field centre in Suffolk. Here, she became convinced of the value of fieldwork in training biologists. One day she led a group on a mushroom foray and served up results at the evening meal. It was only after dinner that one of the students noticed the deathcap was missing. Had this deadly mushroom been served? But before the stomach pumps were turned on, happily, the missing fungus was found under the front steps of the dining hall.

In 1957, Jennifer left for Canada to work as a research assistant at the University of Manitoba, where she earned advanced degrees and stayed on as a professor. For much of her 35-year career at the university, she was the only woman in the Department of Biological Sciences. Her patience, firmness and grace, tempered by an impish sense of humour, blazed a trail for others to follow.

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Jennifer Shay.

The Globe and Mail

Jennifer was a respected ecologist, environmentalist and interdisciplinary scientist. As the founding director of the Delta Marsh Field Station, located on the southern shore of Lake Manitoba, she mentored students and inspired thousands more, supporting her students both intellectually and personally, cooking meals, ensuring everyone had a place to sleep and even hosting a wedding at her home along the Red River. She also met Tom Shay at the university, when the archaeologist helped to supervise a thesis on pollen analysis. The two became research partners – travelling to Greece on a National Geographic team – and life partners in 1970.

Tom and Jennifer moved to an acreage on the Red River in the late 1980s. After the devastating 1997 flood, the property was purchased by the province and later turned into the Jennifer and Tom Shay Ecological Reserve; the couple were saddened by their loss but pleased that the property had been set aside as a refuge for wildlife.

Over her career, Jennifer would help found what is now the Manitoba Museum. She joined the board of the Fort Whyte Nature Centre and helped create the Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg. For her many contributions, Jennifer was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1989 and an Officer in 2001.

After retirement, Jennifer and Tom moved to England. “Auntie Jen,” as she was known to her nieces and nephews, was a source of timely birthday presents; lessons in the fine arts of Scotch eggs, pastry and spiced beef; and demonstrations in the making of quinzees one snowy Christmas in Yorkshire. None could match her ability to touch her nose with her tongue, though many tried!

Jennifer will be missed for her wisdom and humour, her caring and grace. She left her mark in both physical places and people’s hearts.

Jennifer Veitch is Jennifer’s honorary goddaughter and Tom Shay is her husband.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide.

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