Learning in the chemistry lab

David Palmer remembers as a chemistry student being bored by class discussions about kinetics, or the rates of reactions, when all he wanted to do was make compounds. It wasn’t until he got into the lab and was following his own reactions that he cared about kinetics. “Then, all that stuff I had been lectured about fell into place.”

By Kris Foster

The head of the Department of Chemistry shared that personal anecdote to illustrate the value of letting undergraduate students get their hands dirty, to get into the field, onto the ward or into the lab to practice what they learn in the classroom. Chemistry in particular, as both a science and a department, has a long history of encouraging and enabling undergrads to get research experience. In Palmer's view, the department's very deliberate practice of supporting undergraduate research contributes to the university's effort to enrich the experience of students, but it also plays an integral part in the work of department faculty. "I don't know of any member of our department who hasn't benefited from undergraduate research students," he said.

The efforts to get undergrads involved in research are growing in all disciplines across campus, but chemistry has a couple of distinct advantages. First, it is a very mature and hands-on science that has always been inextricably tied to laboratories. And, continued Palmer, "we are researchers who also teach, not teachers who also do research. It's what we love to do."

The U of S department is considered mid-sized compared to its counterpart at other Canadian institutions, said Palmer, but 14 of its 18 faculty members have Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grants. Some have several other grants as well. "That's a ratio among the best on campus." It also creates an enormous number of opportunities for students, both during the school year and over the summers.

So ingrained is undergrad research in the department that all fourth-year chemistry students are required to take a research course that requires two presentations to the department and a report with production of a poster strongly encouraged. "Ideally, in the final year, the only labs for those students are research work." A similar course is offered to third-year students as an option "and we require all first-, second- and third-year students to take courses with labs attached to them."

Palmer stressed that making room for undergrads in chemistry labs is in no way a token effort. "We do the real thing here. They're not cleaning up after the grad students. To be fair though, on paper an untrained undergrad is probably not worth the money but that's the shortsighted view. The long view is that it's about experience, an appreciation for the science and how it's done, and it's a huge educational opportunity. And if they're suitably impressed, they might even stay on and do graduate work.

"That's the difference you can make in someone's life, but students sometimes don't know they're interested in research until they try it. All kinds of people come to chemistry. They might be interested in medicine or in a private sector job. I tell them that they can probably make more money waiting tables but that they should work in the lab for at least one summer just for the experience."

The biggest challenge for the department in providing research experience for its students is, said Palmer, the money. "We always have more summer students than faculty who can take them so the department sets aside funds specifically for this." In addition to those internal scholarships and research grant money, many faculty members take advantage of NSERC student scholarships to pay for summer jobs. "In order for us to be able to pay a reasonable wage over the summer, we rely on these matching programs."

Most chemistry faculty have research groups—grad students, technicians—"so a student can join that group and take part in all the activities of the lab." And researchers will often tailor a project to capture the interest of a particular student, said Palmer. "These are bright young aspiring professionals. We want to give them a realistic research goal and a project they can feel ownership of. Chances are they won't be totally independent but if you're just an assembly line worker, you're going to get the results you ask for."

And in the Department of Chemistry, the results have been impressive. Palmer said their undergrads have had work published in prestigious journals, used the Canadian Light Source facilities, given presentations to national conferences and won poster competitions. "This isn't a hobby farm; this is the real thing. We're not fooling around."

Asked why undergrad research in any discipline should be important to an institution like the U of S, Palmer said it is a way to create bonds like no other.

"It connects faculty to students in a way that standing in front of a class doesn't, and it connects students to what we stand for as faculty. Students are here to get a credential—I understand that—but students get a different view of professors when they see what we're working on, how we're working."

In the big picture, Palmer sees research—any kind of research—as an important life skill, "a skill that goes beyond the work I do on molecules. Research is something everyone should practice beyond typing a few words into Google."