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Dr. Aurelio Sirianni





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Dr. Aurelio Sirianni: An Italian Innovator
By Oliviana Mingarelli
Life is never easy and is often full of hurdles and obstacles. However, Dr. Aurelio Sirianni has triumphed over all of these, proving himself to be an extraordinary man.

Dr. Sirianni moved to Canada from a little town in southern Italy in 1925. One of Preston Street’s first inhabitants, he and his family planted their roots in Ottawa when he was just ten years old. At first, many things did not come easily for the young boy and he ended up dropping out of grade eight to pursue a technical career. He gained a body of knowledge in this field, but soon realized the importance of education. Upon attempting to re-enter the system, he received much resistance from the school board who did not believe that his technical background constituted an education and therefore they would not allow him to attend university.

However, with the help of one teacher’s guidance, Dr. Sirianni did attend university, ultimately earning a Bachelor of Science from Mount Alison, followed by a Doctorate in Chemistry from McGill University.

“Mr. McCarthy said you go ahead and do what you want. If you put your head to it, you can do it,” says Dr. Sirianni, remembering his teacher’s advice. He notes that in following this direction he became the first Italian immigrant in Ottawa to receive his PhD.

During the summers between school years, Mr. Sirianni worked for the National Research Council (NRC).

Now retired, Dr. Sirianni has time to enjoy playing bocce and caring for his plants.

“The first work I did was for a private company that had nothing to do with the NRC, but I worked directly for them. This company paid a certain amount of money to support somebody, myself on this particular project, because they wanted me to further research,” Dr. Sirianni explains.

The recognition of a research scientist’s work at such a young age does not happen often; Sirianni’s dedication to his work must have been apparent to many people. Dr. Sirianni worked for the NRC until his retirement in 1979, at which point he still continued doing some research for them.

During his time at the NRC, he worked on a project to create lubricating greases without a melting point, a discovery which led to much publicity and acknowledgment of Dr. Sirianni’s research. His discovery made it possible to almost eliminate oil changes. A test car went over 30,000 kilometres without an oil change and was still working fine.

“This discovery was what gave me a little bit of notoriety but it’s really minimal to what I did at the NRC,” says Dr. Sirianni, chuckling.

He proceeds to explain how he worked on many important projects including one that aimed to reduce the amount of mercury in coal. Reducing the amounts of mercury would help decrease air pollution. In addition, Dr. Sirianni was given the title of Principal Researcher, a title given to less than three percent of NRC staff.

Not only has Dr. Sirianni been very involved in the scientific community, but in the Italian one as well. He was the founding and current president of the Dante Alighieri Society. The society is committed to promoting the Italian language throughout the Ottawa area.

He is also a member of the Order of Italo-Canadians, the Italian Business and Professional Men’s Association and while it existed, the Sons of Italy. This very active man also participates in a sport well known to Italians: bocce. In fact, he and his partner won the bocce championship four or five years ago. He told me that when he is not playing bocce he loves to take care of his plants. He even has lemon trees in his garage.

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Dr. Sirianni’s connection to his culture is evident. When I asked him about how he felt the Italian community had changed his answer was filled with touching memories.

“Life changes all the time. You’re interacting with more people so it’s difficult for things to stay the same unless you isolate yourself and forget your native language. When you start learning other languages like English and French you begin to disperse,” Dr. Sirianni says.

“I remember Christmas Eve, the way we celebrated it at home, it was beautiful. Now it’s different, it’s an Anglo-Saxon atmosphere. At home we had the presepio [the nativity scene]. I built one for my family last year. Christmas Eve in Italy was beautiful, all the young children like myself would go out and find wood, there were a lot of chestnut groves and some of the branches would die off and fall. We would pick all those sticks up and pile them together and make a big, big fire Christmas Eve. It would last all night.”

“At midnight the older people would march off to church and the younger ones would stay to have apple cider and stuff like that. The adults used to make something with flour and honey, it tasted really good.

“When we came to Canada, my grandmother continued the tradition of the presepio. However, over time you get away from that, it’s strange. I still prefer a nice Christmas Eve when we go the church, the old-fashioned way. There’s something in that you know.”

A man of many facets, Dr. Sirianni is a remarkable and successful member of both the Italian community and the science community. Throughout his life Sirianni has attained over 40 patents, both in Canada and the United States. Even though his peers have acknowledged him many times for his research he has remained a very modest man, proud of his heritage and family.

This article was originally published in the January 2001 issue of Il Postino.
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