Celebrating the graduates of Spring 2020: Jonathan Backs

Meet Jonathan Backs, graduating with a PhD in ecology and materials engineering.

News Staff - 8 June 2020

The challenges facing our world today require experts in a variety of subject areas—and interdisciplinary studies can be an excellent way for our graduates to bring unique perspectives and expertise to their careers. As we prepare to celebrate convocation digitally on June 12th, meet Jonathan Backs, graduating with a PhD in materials engineering and ecology through the Department of Biological Sciences and Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering.

Join us as Backs looks back on his studies in ecology under Professor Colleen Cassady St. Clair and Professor John Nychka in materials engineering, and on fond memories of his time at the University of Alberta.

What led you to pick the University of Alberta for your studies?

After completing my undergraduate degree here at the University of Alberta, I had already met two faculty members I wanted to work with in graduate school—Colleen Cassady St. Clair in the Department of Biological Sciences and John Nychka in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering. Although it took time, it eventually worked out that both of them could supervise my interdisciplinary PhD.

Tell us about your experience in the Faculty of Science.

When I think about both the Department of Biological Sciences and my home department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, I feel very fortunate to have worked with many incredible people. I'm grateful to members of the department staff who supported my success; I met a diverse group of colleagues who helped me to feel at home here; I interacted with supportive faculty members who challenged me to grow as a person and as a scholar. Although completing a PhD was an arduous experience in many respects, ultimately it was the people I worked with who had the greatest impact on me.

What is one of your favourite memories from your time at UAlberta?

Of the many distinct groups of people I engaged with over the years, it's difficult to point to any one experience as a favourite. Some of my fondest memories come from my time with the University of Alberta Mixed Chorus and Faculty of Education Handbell Ringers. For three years in a row, three of my fellow ringers and I took up the mantle of the handbell quartet—a part of the Mixed Chorus' annual spring concert where the four of us cooperatively performed a piece of music on dozens of handbells and handchimes. To practice, we sometimes met up at 9 or 10 p.m.—the only time when we were all available—and continued until we could play no longer at around 2 a.m. Delivery pizza never tasted so good as it did during those practices! The performances were an incredible thrill. And to this day, we're all close friends.

What advice do you have for current and future students at the Faculty of Science?

You'll come here to work, and work you will, but try not to let it be the only thing you take away from the experience. This is a unique time in your life, so find things to savour.

How have you spent your time during COVID-19 distancing?

I've been as busy as ever in some ways. Working from home, I completed my thesis and have been working to publish my last thesis chapters in peer-reviewed journals. Meanwhile, I started working part-time at a local tech start-up. I've also been making time to assess my life and think about my next career steps. I'm a different person now than when I started graduate school, and it will take time for me to understand what that means.

How do you plan on celebrating convocation?

Although I was as disappointed as anyone that I won't be able to experience my in-person convocation this month, the virtual convocation provides an opportunity to share the moment with more of my family, friends, and mentors than could be accommodated at an in-person ceremony. I also want to take time to reach out to everyone who made this convocation possible for me—friends, family, volunteers, mentors, teachers, and advisors past and present.

What's next after graduation?

I had hoped to travel this year, but so far I'm enjoying the chance to apply my skills at my new job while I take the time to consider my next steps. With this degree completed, the future feels full of exciting possibilities.