What do you teach?
I teach 1st year chemistry to 4th year/graduate courses in analytical chemistry. But most commonly I teach a 2nd year quantitative analysis course (CHEM 211). These courses focus on how we can determine what chemicals and how much of each chemical is present in a sample.
Why should people learn about it?
Two reasons. First, everything around us…and in us…is made of chemicals. To determine our health, or the health of our environment, or whether a product such as a pharmaceutical is within its label claim, it is necessary to determine which chemicals are present, and how much of it is present.
Second, analytical chemistry is about getting the right answer. If you take a pregnancy test, you do not want the answer to be “maybe”. Science, and society, depends on careful and correct measurements. But getting the right answer is not easy. Accuracy takes thoughtful planning, tremendous attention to detail, and meticulous execution. This is challenging, but with guidance our students achieve amazing accuracy. Our CHEM 211 students’ analyses are not just “accurate to the last drop”, but accurate to within a fraction of a drop.
What are some of its "real-world" applications?
Jobs, jobs, and jobs. Our students’ skills in analytical chemistry and getting the right answer get them jobs in environmental labs such as Maxxam and Paracel, forensic labs at the RCMP, and industrial labs at companies such as Guardian Chemicals, NOVA Chemicals and Gilead Pharmaceuticals. Analytical chemists determine if our water is safe to drink and air is safe to breath; to helping develop new treatments for AIDS and hepatitis.
What’s the coolest thing about this subject area?
Analytical chemistry impacts on every aspect of science and society. Through my research I have collaborated with chemical companies such as Dow and Syncrude. Meanwhile my colleague James Harynuk collaborates with textile scientists to determine what chemicals make old tee-shirts stink and with organic chemists to catch athletes that are drug cheats. Another colleague Mike Serpe is developing simple and portable methods to detect harmful bacteria in rural and remote locations. And he is not alone, Juli-Gibbs Davis and Ratmir Derda have received Global Health Grand Challenges awards (Canadian equivalent to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) to develop disease detection methods suitable for use in developing countries. And I could go on and on because the UofA is at the forefront in the world in analytical chemistry.
But the coolest thing is that our undergrads are integral to this world-leading research. In just the past few years, our undergrads have co-authored over 100 research papers! Students can get involved in research through courses such as CHEM 299 or CHEM 401/403, through summer research, or by volunteering. But faculty do not advertise positions. Students need to contact faculty to ask about possible research positions. This may seem hard to do, but fortunately the Undergrad Research Initiative (URI) provides a tip-sheet on how to do it.
You've got an impressive track record when it comes to teaching awards - what's your secret to being a great instructor?
After my Ph.D. I worked for a number of years in a government lab. But I missed the enthusiasm and curiosity of students. Students are what brought me back to campus, and who fuel my own enthusiasm for teaching and research.
There are days when I have been tired or overwhelmed with other tasks…and maybe that lecture wasn’t really clicking…and then I would see that light of understanding or excitement in a student’s eyes, or I would get that note of encouragement taped to my door. These buoyed me up and fueled my desire to do better next time…for the students.
So I have been lucky that students have encouraged me when I needed it. Often these notes would start “I know this probably doesn’t mean much to you, but I really appreciated…” But it did mean a great deal to me. So to the students out there, please let your current instructors know when they do something you appreciate. It will mean the world to them.
What has been the most effective teaching innovation you use or have seen someone else use?
There are some really awesome instructors on campus that I have learned so much from. Billy Strean’s use of humour is incredible. Vincent Bouchard’s flipped classrooms in math and Sheree Kwong See’s blended class in psychology have opened eyes across campus of what can be done. I have learned bits and pieces from each of them which has made my classroom better. But the two innovations I would consider my own are Spamming and University 101.
My office hours were chronically underutilized. Many students would e-mail me (which I appreciated), but then only the e-mailer learned the answer to what was probably a common question. So now if a student e-mails me, I strip all identifiers from the question, and then use eClass Announcements to send the question and my answer to all of the students in the class. I average about one quester per student in the class during the term. So in a class of 400 students, you see why I refer to it as spamming. Sometimes the question is difficult to answer by e-mail. These are a great focus for the review at the beginning of the next lecture.
Learning is about much more than the classroom. The UofA has done a tremendous job of developing resources that take learning well beyond the classroom. But far too few of our students know about these opportunities. So at the beginning of each class I do what I refer to as University 101. I talk briefly about upcoming URI seminars, Career Centre workshops, or Nobel Prize calibre speakers such as Art McDonald. Also, our department has recently introduced CHEM 300, which brings recent chemistry alumni from local industry to talk about their career and jobs. (All of the companies mentioned above have participated in these seminars.) The CHEM 300 seminars and tours are open to all students, and have led to companies doing recruitment interviews on campus.
What was your favourite learning experience as an undergrad, and how do you incorporate that experience into teaching your students?
I was able to incorporate both industrial experience and undergraduate research into my undergrad. The work experiences put the course content into perspective and opened my eyes to the career opportunities in chemistry. During an internship at Dow Chemicals in Fort Saskatchewan, I was introduced to the technique of chromatography way before I would have seen it in upper level chemistry courses. This technique became the focus of my research career.
What is one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I was a varsity athlete. Okay, it was 5-pin bowling, but I did represent the UofA back in the 1980’s. Back then the lower floor of SUB had both a bowling alley and a curling rink. I am still active in sports (soccer and basketball), but with more enthusiasm than skill - picture Rover chasing a ball, rather than Ronaldo.