Each year the University of Alberta and the Alumni Association recognizes the accomplishments of members of the University community — students, staff and alumni — with various awards and honors. New Trail is pleased to salute the winners of some of the major University and Alumni Association prizes as a way of celebrating the achievements of not only these individuals but a great many others who, through their commitment and attainments, have brought honor to our alma mater.
Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching
She rises in the morning, grabs the soap and lathers up in the shower, inhales a bowl of sugar-coated breakfast cereal, and stops to smell a flower before hopping on her bicycle and frantically pedalling to campus in a haze of noxious rushhour fumes. By the time she arrives in the basic organic chemistry class taught by John Vederas, this U of A student has already spent the morning immersed in chemistry.
"At least once in every lecture I try to connect the theoretical to an example from real life," says Vederas. "I like to show students that chemistry is not just something that goes on in test tubes or chemical plants. It's the study of the matter of the universe, of everything it's made of."
Students seem to appreciate Vederas' efforts to enliven Chemistry 160 — which has a reputation for being among the toughest basic science courses — and make it memorable and relevant for them. "I haven't just learned organic chemistry from Dr. Vederas, I've learned a lot of history and interesting tidbits about life," wrote one student in a course evaluation.
In students' evaluations of the 1995 Rutherford Award-winning chemistry professor, the word "enthusiastic" is ubiquitous. "Teaching is an expression of personality, in part," says the smiling, amiable Vederas. "Students have to like the personality, or at least find it interesting, in order to want to learn."
When Vederas arrived at the U of A in 1977 his personality may have been engaging but, by his own acknowledgment, his teaching style wasn't. His current success in the classroom "grew out of being a very horrible teacher at the beginning," he admits with a laugh. "My lectures were very theoretical, over the heads of everybody." Anxious to improve his teaching, Vederas discovered ways to make the subject that is his passion interesting to classes of 200 restless undergraduates. "Undergrad teaching gives me a broader perspective. It makes you rethink some of the basic questions and ask yourself to prove all over again how you know that something is true."
To help revive lagging interest during massive lectures, Vederas frequently uses demonstrations, experiments and visual aids. The three-dimensional system of viewing computer-generated slides of molecules that he developed through a U of A Teaching Research Grant in 1990-1991 is a favorite among students. The teaching aids help to bring a point across, "but at least part of the reason [for using them] is entertainment value, to keep students awake," he says. Although his primary satisfaction comes from having students learn and appreciate the topic he's teaching, Vederas allows that "there is an element of theatre in it. If people are amused it's very rewarding."
As a lecturer, Vederas is much in demand among his colleagues in academia and industry. His popularity in that milieu has little to do with the entertainment value of his lectures. What is valued is his insight into the field of natural products chemistry, a field of study which strives to understand the mechanisms by which nature assembles biological molecules. The work of the Vederas group, which includes eight graduate and six post-doctoral researchers, could result in new molecules designed for medical, agricultural, and food technology applications.
Vederas' excellence in both teaching and scholarship has previously been recognized with the Merck, Sharp and Dohme and John Labatt Awards from the Chemical Institute of Canada, a McCalla Research Professorship, a Killam Annual Professorship, and a Faculty of Science Award for Excellent Teaching. Most recently, he was awarded nearly $1 million from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council to purchase a high resolution mass spectrometer system, used to determine atomic information about large biological molecules such as carbohydrates, proteins and DNA/RNA fragments.
While Vederas is "honored" to receive recognition from his students and peers, he says that the real rewards of teaching and research come from everyday experience. "I enjoy the experience of interacting with people and stimulating their interest, not just in chemistry but in life and the world around them ... making them wake up intellectually." In Vederas' 17 years of teaching at the U of A, thousands of students have heard and heeded that wake-up call.
Published Autumn 1995.