Great chemistry: The benefits of doing research in your undergrad

Undergraduate student Alex Gabbey discusses her experience in the lab.

Katie Willis - 03 December 2019

Overseeing reactions, conducting measurements, and interpreting data. For undergraduate student Alex Gabbey, life in the lab is starting to feel like second nature-and it has as much to do with the people in the lab as it does the science.

For the last year and a half, Gabbey has been part of the research lab supervised by synthetic chemist Rylan Lundgren, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry. During this time, Gabbey has taken a regular course load, as well as CHEM 399 and 401. During these courses, Gabbey works in the research lab with Lundgren and her fellow labmates, including both graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. In the lab, she conducts experiments, and collects and analyzes data.

"Being part of a research group is also kind of like being part of a little family on campus," said Gabbey. "Doing research feels like a natural extension of my schedule every day. You get to know people, and it's nice to work with familiar faces. There's always a new reaction to run or data to go through." Her research is made possible through a donation from a chemistry alumnus to their home department in support of a studentship

Gabbey's work is in the field of organometallic chemistry, and has centred on finding new methods for forming carbon-carbon bonds in functional molecules. The ultimate goal? Finding new and more efficient ways to create useful molecules. And if there is one thing Gabbey has learned, it is that developing these new methods is more than a little complicated.

"It might sound simple but the most exciting part is when the chemistry works!" said Gabbey. "It is such a great feeling to finally have a breakthrough with a reaction or to solve a problem that you've been working on for a while. It makes all of the trial and error worth it. When I first began conducting chemistry research, I was surprised by how much trial and error is involved. Acclimating to a certain level of failure in the research process was definitely a learning curve."

Symbiotic relationship

Gabbey's work in the Lundgren lab has been more than a great learning experience. For her fellow labmates, her contributions to the research program have been invaluable-especially her work on building new carbon-carbon bonds.

"Alex's research contributes to one of the most challenging problems in modern organic chemistry," said Lundgren, who recently received the University of Alberta's Martha Cook Piper Research Prize for his innovative research program. "Thanks to her outstanding talents as a researcher, she discovered a method to form new carbon-carbon bonds with precise control over the structure of the newly formed compounds."

In fact, Gabbey's breakthrough research results have laid the foundation for several projects that other researchers are working on in the lab.

Future focus

Now finishing up the final year of her degree, Gabbey's advice to fellow undergraduate students considering doing research is to just do it. "Before I got into the lab, research felt like this big black box to me; I had no idea how it looked day to day or what the process was really like and I was pretty nervous to try my hand at it," she said. "Now I can honestly say that getting into research has been the best decision of my undergraduate degree."

And as far as her plans after graduation, Gabbey believes that doing research during her undergraduate studies has given her direction on her next steps. She hopes to pursue a PhD and eventually wind up doing research and teaching full time.

"I'll never forget how even the simplest theories in CHEM 101 blew my mind," added Gabbey. "That class sparked my love of chemistry; when you love something, you want other people to love it too."

The Faculty of Science has the highest number of instruction hours for our undergraduates of any university in Canada. Experiential training in laboratories is crucial to keeping students' skills competitive in the global marketplace, and the learning environment is critical for student development and education.

Curious about doing research as an undergraduate student? Learn more about the University of Alberta's Undergraduate Research Initiative.