Alex Veinot grew up in a small rural community in Nova Scotia, where he was frequently in trouble at school and slotted in the “dumb class.”
Today, Veinot is a Vanier Scholar in the final stretch of his PhD in chemistry at Queen’s University. His research focuses on developing new organic-on-metal technologies, specifically N-heterocyclic carbenes (NHCs) on copper. Copper is an important metal in industry, mostly because of its high conductivity and low cost. The problem is that it readily oxidizes in air, making it hard to work with.
Veinot’s work aims to control the reactivity of copper surfaces through changes in local surface environment, and has applications in corrosion inhibition, microelectronics, and heterogeneous catalysis.
While he is an accomplished academic, Veinot, a member of the Mi’kmaq community Glooscap First Nation, keenly remembers the culture shock of making the transition to university life.
“I had imposter syndrome. I frequently felt like I didn’t belong because I didn’t see other Indigenous scientists,” he recalls. “I thought I would be singled out, so I didn’t talk much about it. I just did my work and was very productive. Now, I don’t think anyone questions my right to be here.”
Besides hard work, two things helped Veinot succeed.
The first was starting small. During his undergraduate degree at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, he was just 40 minutes from home and 15 minutes from Glooscap. “I chose Acadia because I recognized there were a lot of changes involved with beginning university studies. I knew that to succeed, I would need a lot of support in the beginning,” he says.
For his master’s, he moved a bit further away to Saint Mary’s in Halifax. “At this point, I knew that adjusting to city life would be my next challenge. I knew Halifax pretty well and Saint Mary’s and Acadia were similar in size. For me, this was the best choice to adjust to city life while still having support from my family and community,” says Veinot. These experiences are what allowed him to thrive during his PhD at Queen’s in Kingston, Ontario.
The second thing was discovering an aptitude for lab work: “I’m a hands-on learner and being in the lab really turned things around for me,” he says. “I was fortunate to recognize this early since it became so important for adjusting to many challenges throughout my studies. When the outside world was a big and scary place, the lab became my comfort zone where I could tinker around.”
At Queen’s, he fell in love with the challenge of designing carbenes for metal surfaces. “While carbenes have become popular in molecular complexes, an exciting new area has been applying them to surfaces. We’re still trying to learn the rules and it’s difficult to predict what the surface will look like for a given carbene,” says Veinot.
His first large research project involved designing an etching protocol for removing metal oxide from copper surfaces and protecting them with NHCs in a single step procedure. This simple, straightforward method is expected to allow new uses of other abundant, but reactive metals in air, and was presented at the inaugural Commonwealth Chemistry Congress.
Veinot would like to be able to share his enthusiasm with other Indigenous chemists and so has spoken about his experiences at various CCCE conferences and at an invited talk at Saint Mary’s University. He also works to encourage Indigenous students to pursue chemistry through his involvement with the CSC committee, Working for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity.
As he points out, just one in 10 Indigenous people in Canada holds a bachelor’s degree. Among non-Indigenous people, the number is one in four, according to Statistics Canada.
“Having made a path, now I would like to remove some of the barriers to make it easier for others to follow,” he says.