Few things can change a student’s mind like hearing the voice of experience, especially if the speaker is being brutally honest. For his part, Nobel laureate Martin Chalfie did just that when he told an audience at Queen’s University about the roots of his own scientific career.
“I worked in a lab as a junior in college to get some experience and boy, did I get experience,” he responded. “I failed completely. For the entire summer, nothing worked. I failed and I quit.”
Not only did he quit the lab work, he went from studying biochemistry to taking courses in law, theatre, and Russian literature, as well as pursuing career options such as becoming a dress salesman and a janitor. After eventually finding his way back into a laboratory, he solicited much more help and eventually found the necessary mentorship to begin his career in earnest.
Chalfie, now a professor at Columbia University, shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work on a green fluorescent protein that has become an important tool for studying genes. Such definitive success might leave the impression that it was all a tidy upward path, but he never forgot about this early stumbling block and continues to assure today’s students facing their own challenges that they are in good company.
Chalfie was joined on stage by University of Ottawa molecular biologist Mona Nemer, who is now Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, and Queen’s University astrophysicist Art McDonald, who shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for work he carried out at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. They likewise told students that a life in science is bound to be full of ups and downs, and the two might even be hard to distinguish.
Such assurances are also offered at CIC’s own events, such as the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering’s (CSChE) 69th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference (CCEC) in Halifax last October (CCEC 2019), where students heard from emerging leaders how they are tackling some of the world’s biggest problems, a set of presentations that led students to take stock of their own ambitions.
Similarly, the Careers in Chemistry Symposium at the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s (CSC) 102nd Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition (CCCE) in Quebec City last June (CCCE 2019) was a day-long series of panel discussions around these themes. Participants revealed what it took to turn their education into a lifetime’s occupation, and the many twists and turns that can crop up along the way.
One of the panelists was Tim Clark, MCIC, GreenCentre Canada’s Technology Leader in Kingston, Ontario. GreenCentre supports early-stage Canadian cleantech companies by providing high-value technical and commercial services. In addition to sharing the details of his career at CCCE 2019 last summer, Clark has spent the past decade making regular visits to first-year chemistry classes taught by his colleague Paul Ragogna, MCIC, a professor at Western University’s Department of Chemistry.
“A lot of first-year students don’t appreciate the breadth of chemistry and everything that it touches,” explains Clark, who also enjoys talking about the colourful career paths of the various entrepreneurs he encounters through GreenCentre. “Students might think of chemistry as being an out-dated science, but of course it is absolutely current given it underpins emerging fields like nanotechnology and sustainability.”
For Ragogna, whose class is one of four sections serving the 2,000 first-year chemistry students at Western, the goal is to offer them a range of perspectives on this discipline.
“We have people come in to expand their horizons,” he explains. “The motivation was to provide a window for the students to see what a chemistry degree could potentially do for them.”
He adds that a large number of students regard that degree as no more than a stepping-stone to graduate work or a professional school, rather than an end in itself. By bringing in speakers such as a patent law expert or the owner of a microbrewery, Ragogna hopes to showcase opportunities that many young people might not even know exist.
For Jeff Binns, a corrosion scientist who now works with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, sharing his own background with them is a way of compensating for the fact that they may well have never met anyone who works in science.
“I didn’t know anybody who did something like that,” he recalls from his own days in high school, when he was making choices about university studies. “It didn’t even seem like a real job to me.”
Nor did the chemical intricacies of dealing with nuclear waste seem real to him until he was drawn into this area, where he remains constantly stimulated by its technical demands and economic relevance. Joe Chan, another frequent visitor to Ragogna’s classes, has much the same attachment to the chemistry involved in extracting waxes and lubricants from petroleum, which has occupied much of time as a research technologist with Imperial Oil in Sarnia, Ontario.
“Originally I wanted to do a PhD and go down that career path,” says Chan. He was on his way to grad school when a faculty member suggested he spend some time working in industry, if only to determine if he liked it. He was able to do so through Western’s Science Internship Program, which let him spend a year at Imperial. The experience was a positive one, and he now students to take advantage of any similar opportunity they can find, so that they do not overlook possibilities that are appealing and available, instead of more elusive goals such as medical school, which may ultimately prove to be far less satisfying.
“It’s not necessarily for them to go down the exact same path I did, but to realize that not all paths lead to med school and not all paths lead to grad school,” he concludes. “There are other options.”