As we continue to celebrate IYPT2019 and IUPAC100, we are featuring those outstanding members of the Canadian chemistry community who are highlighted in IUPAC’s Periodic Table of Younger Chemists. This Q&A series lets us get to know the people behind the achievements. Next in our series is Erin McConnell (helium, He), a member of the Canadian Society for Chemistry and a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University, where she leads a team developing an inexpensive paper-based device that uses DNA oligonucleotides — also known as DNAzymes — to detect pathogenic bacteria in water.
I’ve always been fascinated by how things work and found that chemistry could be used to explain everything I was curious about: how our bodies work, how our brains work, what causes disease, etc. I also love chemistry because I’ve had some incredible chemistry mentors — Maria DeRosa and Robert Burk at Carleton University, and Yingfu Li at McMaster University — who inspired my love of chemistry research as well as chemistry outreach.
What excites you most about your work?
My research expertise lies in using functional nucleic acids (aptamers and DNAzymes) to make nanoscale building blocks that can be used to make biosensors, diagnostics and therapeutics. I am fascinated that we can use a biological molecule, DNA, in an unconventional way to develop highly selective, sensitive, and biocompatible tools for diverse applications ranging from environmental monitoring to human health.
How has being in Canada helped shape your chemistry career?
I was fortunate to attend my first conference, the Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition in Hamilton in 2009, as an undergraduate student. This was an invaluable opportunity which helped me realize my passion for science communication. I loved being able to share my research and learn about the fascinating work being done by chemists all over Canada. Being a part of the CIC community has also allowed me to participate in science outreach events that helped me realize my passion for STEM education.
Do your activities extend beyond the usual bounds of chemistry?
One of the things I love about my research is that the technology applications are so versatile. This has facilitated collaborative interdisciplinary opportunities allowing me to develop functional nucleic acids for human health (mental health disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer) agricultural toxins, and water quality monitoring.
Another reason that I love chemistry is that it is so fun to engage the public and be involved in outreach. Being involved in chemistry outreach at Carleton University with my supervisor Maria DeRosa led to several outreach opportunities with the CIC, including performing “Chemistry Magic Shows” at the Canada Science and Technology Museum for the International Year of Chemistry and for National Chemistry Week, volunteering at a CIC-hosted career night, and volunteering at the 98th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition. These opportunities helped me realize my passion for science outreach and communication.
Have you ever received advice that you’d like to pass on to other young chemists?
I’ve been fortunate to have incredible mentors and have received some excellent advice. I would encourage young chemists to build a network of friends, supporters, and mentors, to pursue what they’re passionate about, and to embrace failure — learn from it and move on.
In celebration of IYPT 2019, do you have a favourite memory or fact about the periodic table?
I enjoyed reading this article “Celebrate the women behind the periodic table” by Brigitte Van Tigglen and Annette Lykknes. My favourite element fact was that francium, discovered by Marguerite Perey in 1939, was the last element discovered in nature.