Science, Chemistry, Research, and AU Students

Part 2...

As mentioned last week (, the WCUCC (Western Canadian Undergraduate Chemistry) conference was a wonderful opportunity for students to present their research to an audience of peers and academics. Each was given a short time to explain the process used, what they had discovered, and what the future goals of the research were. While most of the presentations were straightforward and somewhat dry, some students were quite passionate and descriptive about their research. One award-winning young chemistry student from Victoria even referred to his chemistry molecules as “sexy”! What was clear throughout, though, was that each of these students were excited at having made an important contribution to the world of science, however small it might be. I admired the way the research was presented, too. Students were given top billing, even though they had all done their work under the close supervision and guidance of a professor.

The afternoon of the first day we were given a fascinating tour of the Regina RCMP Forensics Unit. Our first stop was the chemistry lab, where substances such as clothing and paint are sent for analysis. I’ve always been curious about how it is possible to determine what starts a fire, and the lab chemist briefly explained that the lab takes burned items from locations where there is a suspicious fire, freezes them, then re-heats them to identify the presence of volatile molecules such as gasoline or fire starter. If certain substances are present, it can be assumed that the fire was set deliberately and further investigative work is done. Although I did not understand exactly how the process worked, the chemists in the crowd did, and it was clear that there is a very valid and successful procedure in place to identify what starts suspicious fires. The RCMP chemist also showed how even very tiny paint samples can be matched in order to identify things such as vehicles involved in accidents.

We moved on to the biology department where they collect DNA samples. Here it was explained that we all shed bits of DNA-containing-skin that can identify us clearly even after only touching an object for a few seconds. DNA can also be extracted from bone marrow and tooth pulp in long-dead corpses, and only very miniscule quantities are needed. Family DNA patterns are inherited and family connections can be determined to identify people and trace roots.

The toxicology section was next, and we were greeted by the sight of a very tall hookah pipe as we rounded the corner, followed by a complete cabinet full of confiscated drug paraphernalia! This naturally elicited humourous gasps and comments from the students, and we were all fascinated by the wide diversity of equipment in the cabinet, from home-made to professional.

Handwriting analysis and firearms were the final two areas we toured. Examples were displayed of things such as various forgeries, counterfeit money, and demonstrations of how pen impressions and scribbled-out writing can be deciphered. The firearms area had samples of shot residue patterns that reveal angle and range of gunshots, and the firing range is used to test guns for force and velocity. Tools are also studied to determine how they have been used (in break-ins for example), and articles of clothing are checked for patterns that indicate whether they’ve been torn or deliberately cut (in cases such as sexual assault). According to the RCMP officer, break-ins have become so common they are rarely followed up any more by the forensic lab, and instead their time and efforts are consumed with shootings, sexual assaults and gang activity.

The RCMP forensics department in Canada has recently undergone significant downsizing and consolidation of offices and services, and many pieces of expensive forensic equipment has wound up in government surplus, sold for a fraction of the value. Of interest was the revelation that within 10 years 50% of the RCMP expert forensic staff will be retiring and need to be replaced. The majority of these staff positions are not police officers, but are open to only those who have university degrees – at the very least an honours undergrad degree, preferably a BSc.

For dinner that evening, the conference organizers took us way outside of Regina on a long drive across the Saskatchewan prairie, to a large red barn perched on a small hill in the middle of nowhere. Although it was just early evening, and the sunset was lovely, the wind was so strong that it was impossible to stand outside. Here we were fed steak cooked by “Merv’s Pitchfork Fondue”. Chunks of steak were speared on tines of a pitchfork and immersed into a bucket of boiling oil – sounded interesting, and I’m always willing to try something new. Unfortunately I found the steaks inedible. After several attempts to slice through a gristled, rock-hard, and tasteless piece of meat with a plastic knife, I finally gave up. I think I’ll stick to the traditional steak barbeque!

During the several hours that we waited for the food to be prepared, I enjoyed a long and enlightening conversation with my daughter’s chemistry professor and co-researcher, Dr. Vladimir Pitchko. Although he is originally from Russia, he finished his PhD in Canada at the University of Western Ontario and Guelph University. Not only is he a brilliant scientist and passionate researcher, he is a genuine, down-to-earth, sincere person; whose deep respect for his students was obvious. He spoke highly of the abilities of my daughter as his student, and it was clear that he cared about her education and career goals.

He commented on the visit to the RCMP lab, and how limiting it can be to become an expert in only one field. We talked a bit about why students are recommended to complete undergrad and graduate studies at different universities. He stated that a student who had managed to “survive” at two universities is viewed as someone who has met challenges and proven themselves, and that they have greatly expanded their knowledge and range of experience because every university is very different. He stressed the importance of adaptability, stating that although his first “love” was not analytical chemistry, at a certain point in his life it happened to be the opportunity presented to him, and he had accepted that and built his career around it. Eventually he had found his niche, but it had required that he try out several different areas of chemistry before doing so. He spoke about how research at universities often goes unrewarded, and that academics such as himself tend to do research on their own time, out of the love of research itself rather than with the hope of financial compensation. We talked about making a career in science, or as an academic. He commented that it can be a negative thing for one’s career to remain in one educational facility for too long, since a person who makes a major career move to another university after many years is often looked at suspiciously. Whether his viewpoints are valid or not, it provided proof of something I had read in my Psych375 History of Psychology course – that the politics of science is sometimes a greater impetus to scientific discovery than the scientific discovery itself!

Another item of interest Dr. Pitchko brought to my attention was that age is not always a factor in job success in university circles. I’m always very sensitive of the fact that I’ll be a senior citizen before I finally achieve my PhD – and that my job prospects won’t be the greatest. Dr. Pitchko disabused me of that notion, stating that in reality, universities like to hire people from different age groups, and that older persons are often preferred. Why? Not only do universities want to have a varied level of maturity; an older person will tend to be stable and stay at the university and are not as likely to only remain for a few short years after being hired. His words made sense, and were encouraging to those of us at AU who wonder whether we will ever be able to do anything useful with our degree.

I was exhausted by the end of the first day, not just from trying to comprehend the foreign language of chemistry, but also because I needed to spend the evening finishing several course papers and attending to Student Union business. My daughter was getting her poster presentation into its final stages of readiness – spraying hypnotic-smelling glue on each piece outside the doorway of our hotel as I tried to concentrate on my psychology assignment.

Finally, at about 11 PM, my daughter suggested that we should both take an hour off and check out the Casino Regina, since it was only a few blocks away. Although I felt rather guilty at leaving my assignment, I agreed with her that a short break was in order, and we walked over. The Casino is built in a former historic train station, and it is one of Saskatchewan’s big tourist attractions. We see advertisements all the time for weekend group packages to the Casino Regina, and I was curious to see whether it met the hype. We agreed that we would buy $20 worth of tokens and that would be our limit.

The outside of the building was quite nice, but it was definitely not Las Vegas. In a town where every other place we had seen was virtually deserted, the casino was a beehive of activity by comparison. The place was senior citizen heaven! Every machine, every table, across the length of the building (and it was a long building) appeared to be occupied by a member of the “freedom 55+” set. It took us a while to even find two machines side by side. When we finally did, I kept losing at the machine I had chosen, and decided to switch to one on the other side. Well of course the moment I did that, along came a white-haired little old lady, who sat down at the machine I had vacated, plunked her quarter in, and promptly won $700!

We did, however, have fun gambling away our $20. A few hours later, my fingers stained black from the coins, and our shoulders aching from pulling the “one-armed bandit,” we got up to leave. I resisted the impulse to watch the senior citizen who took over my machine (I KNEW what was going to happen!), and we left as quickly as possible to get a few hours of sleep, since I would be driving straight back to Alberta the following evening after the conference concluded.

Read next week’s Voice for the conclusion of the WCUCC coverage:

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.