On a fall day in 2008, I found myself in a packed university lecture hall when our professor strode in and made an announcement that would stir deep inner turmoil.
“Many of you want to be doctors!” he boomed. “But the majority of you will not be!”
He may then have launched into a speech encouraging us to consider physics as a career alternative, but I’m not sure. By that point I was mentally churning through what this proclamation meant for my life goals. How did he know? Who told him about my dreams?
Of course, I understood how he might have come to his conclusion. I was just one of hundreds of students taking his course towards the fulfillment of a Biological and Medical Sciences degree at Western University.
I’d always wanted to be a doctor. As a kid, I loved the idea of giving away lollipops and making people feel better. But looking back, what I truly enjoyed was the positive reinforcement from adults when I responded to their questions about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Their tacit approval made me feel “doctor” was the right answer.
However, as I came to realize that day, I only thought I wanted to go to medical school. The truth was my career options had been predetermined and I’d been effectively indoctrinated by the immigrant dream. It wasn’t until then, sitting in that lecture hall, that I realized it wasn’t my idea.
How I learned to love chemistry
I had fuddled my way through first year. Most of it is a blur now, but according to my transcript I did okay. Still, I distinctly remember barely passing my first chemistry midterm, and the shock of how I could have gotten things so wrong.
But with time (and many long nights), chemistry started to make sense and became oddly comforting amidst the chaos of that first year. So, I decided against medical school, and by second year I had switched to chemistry.
I liked that the class sizes had dropped – quite significantly. It was more intimate and allowed me to get to know my peers and instructors better. Yet it was challenging in other ways – it was harder to hide. I tried not to stand out and encouraged myself through a daily mantra: Sit quietly. Don’t ask questions. Study on your own, you’ll figure it out.
That worked all of three weeks until I bombed the quiz on molecular symmetry. Afterwards, I made a reluctant trek to Professor Paul Ragogna’s office. I don’t recall how long it took, but I definitely remember the feeling when it clicked. I still get that same feeling now and then: relief mixed with triumph. Point groups, I discovered, were actually pretty simple.
“Why hadn’t I asked questions in class?” Professor Ragogna wanted to know. I told him I felt silly and didn’t want to embarrass myself. He assured me that having marked the tests, I wasn’t the only one confused.
After that meeting, I was less afraid. I took his advice and raised my hand more often. I soon noticed how other students would hurriedly scribble down notes when the professor responded. Hmm. Maybe he was right.
My (non-explosive) blue oxygen eureka moment
Because I respected his honesty, I asked Dr. Ragogna if I could do my undergrad thesis in his lab. That fall I spent many hours either in a glovebox or on a Schlenk line. It may or may not have been a potential scare with blue oxygen that helped me figure out that synthesis wasn’t my thing. Still, I hadn’t ruled out the possibility of graduate school. When I asked for his advice, Dr. Ragogna told me “graduate school is not glamorous,” but assured me I could do it.
As I came to know my own skills and ambitions better, I decided my graduate degree would be in environmental toxicology. I appreciate the quiet confidence that comes from systematically and scientifically approaching the unknown. I am drawn to the forensic capabilities of instrumental methods and analyses, and using various tools and strategies to unveil clues to a mystery.
Besides, I’ve always been kind of a hipster at heart. Beyond the recycle, reuse, reduce campaign of the 90s, my upbringing instilled values of minimalism – both in possessions and consumption – which later influenced other facets of my life.
The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of chemical analyses
An internship at the National Laboratory for Environmental Testing between third and fourth year helped steer me toward environmental toxicology. As a technologist, I ran hundreds to thousands of samples for various projects related to the oil sands. But I wanted to understand the ‘why.’
So, I decided to study at the University of Alberta with Dr. Jonathan Martin — a world leader in the field of oil sands environmental science. His research combined analytical chemistry and informatics to understand a wide range of contaminants in the environment and in our bodies and I knew I’d learn a lot as part of his group.
Fast-forward several years, and I’ve defended my PhD thesis after spending nearly a decade studying dissolved organic chemicals in the wastewater produced from oil sands extraction. Using a powerful mass spectrometer (Orbitrap), my thesis projects determined lifetimes of dissolved persistent chemicals – information I hope will be useful in guiding research and policy on tailings ponds in northern Alberta.
Now, in my postdoc, I continue to use skills I developed in graduate school to determine if fish in the Athabasca River are being exposed to human-made chemicals from the oil sands. I’m excited and feel fortunate to be doing research at Environment and Climate Change Canada. It feels like I’ve come full circle.
But wait, I’m not done
If this were a Disney movie, my story would end right here – me in a lab coat and goggles, smiling as I swivel back to pipette some unknown liquid (probably blue) in a fume hood with triumphant music playing as the scene fades.
But life is not a fairy tale and there’s one important missing dimension to this story: the colour. Or more to the point, people of colour. Specifically, Black people throughout the history of science. Reflecting on my own academic career, the further I got from elementary school, the fewer Black people I saw around me.
Part of what attracted me to the sciences is its objectivity relative to other subjects. It’s easy to convince ourselves that there is little room for interpretation. In STEM, our truth is governed by laws of nature. I’ve learned principles and theories from giants in the world of chemistry: Rydberg, Lechatelier, Heisenberg, and others who left their mark in science.
Their contributions are undeniably foundational to chemistry, but I can’t help wonder who has been excluded from these histories and why? What kinds of people are models of greatness? How does this relate to the ‘leaky pipeline’ of STEM?
One common example of innovation in the oil sands is the Clark Caustic method. At the University of Alberta, Dr. Karl Clark developed this method to improve the separation of oil from viscous raw material. He patented the process in Edmonton in 1926, just a few years after city officials voted to ban Blacks from moving to Edmonton.
It was a time when school segregation was still happening throughout much of Western Canada. It’s a safe bet that Black people were not welcome on campus to study, and much less to contribute their ideas to science.
Why I didn’t ask questions in class
The thing is, the objectivity of science is limited by context. Chemistry is just one of several subjects taught in schools where students learn about the world. However, even before coming to class we are stratified into societal groups. Education exists within the framework of all institutions which are built on the hierarchy of colonialism. Race has been used to systemically preserve success for some, and to deny the same opportunities to others.
Part of why I hadn’t asked questions early in second year was because throughout my undergraduate degree, I was often the only Black student. It’s one thing for me to look stupid, but another to tacitly portray to everyone else the intelligence of Black people. Unlike my White friends, I knew I ran the risk of misrepresenting a whole race.
I am fortunate to have had champions throughout my career. Whether or not they were aware of it, these brilliant non-Black scientists were significant allies for whom I am thankful. Still, I hope that with passing time, fewer students experience my lonely journey. Studies show the many advantages of diversity in the workplace, and the laboratory is no exception. Representation does matter for so many reasons.
It can be hard to make the connection between slavery, historical discrimination, and current-day institutional racism, especially here in Canada. But following George Floyd’s death last summer, and the resulting public outcry, I think people are now ready to begin that process.
Universities are starting to take concrete steps to acknowledge and address issues of anti-Black racism, including the U of A which is beginning to develop strategies to collect-race based data.
I realize this work is complicated. The impacts of systemic racism are ubiquitous – they manifest in numerous ways and therefore there is no simple solution. But we can use facts to better understand the impacts of systemic racism, ask questions, identify challenges, and iteratively strategize ways to address them. That is, after all, the scientific method.