Science, Chemistry, Research, and AU Students

Part 3...

To read the first two parts of this article, see:

Part 1: May 7th [v11 i19] (
Part 2: May 14th [v11 i20] (

My daughter presented her research the following afternoon, and I arrived with my textbook in tow so that I could sneak some study time in between sessions. I enjoyed a tour of the poster presentations, and most of those I spoke with were able to explain their research in layman’s terms. My daughter’s research was “Quantum Chemical Calculations of NMR Isotropic Chemical Shifts of Calystegines” (Benavides & Pitchko, Concordia University College of Alberta). She explained this to me as a study of chemical compositions from the root of the bindweed or morning glory (and other plants), that are known to cause disease in cattle. Her research isolated the compounds, one at a time, and tested them to see if they fit a particular chemical profile. Of the dozen possible calystegine compounds, they had only managed to completely test two of them, even though the research project took place over most of the summer. This reinforced to me just how slow and painstaking research can be, and how much dreary mechanical work must precede almost any research breakthrough. She and Dr. Pitchko will be continuing the research until it is complete and ready to be published, and this is expected to take the better part of this summer.

What I found interesting was Dr. Pitchko’s comment that the first task will be to do a review of published journals and articles. I asked him if this was not the first thing done when embarking on research. He stated, absolutely yes, but added that the review they had done before starting the project was already over six months old, and that in the world of science, new research is ongoing at an incredible pace. It is quite likely that dozens of other researchers will have already made published progress on the same project, and that part of the research process is to continually be aware of what other scientists are doing.

While my daughter was explaining her research to the last judge, Dr. Pitchko commented to me that one of the most important criteria to receive an award at an event like this was that students were able to clearly explain their role in the research, and to show that they were able to work cooperatively with their professors in achieving results. A student who attempted to act like “a know it all” would not be looked upon favourably, whereas a student who acknowledged their limitations and admitted the importance of relying on their teachers and peers to expand on their scientific knowledge would be successful. This was a great relief to my daughter, who had been worried that if she could not answer all the judges’ questions she would be in trouble.

I also had the opportunity to speak with other professors from across Canada. One from British Columbia expressed surprise that Athabasca University offered a BSc, asking me how it was possible to take chemistry courses at a distance? I explained that students are given opportunities to perform laboratory experiments at home, with some hands-on experience, and by computer, and I also mentioned Martin Conners holding AU’s research chair in science. He was unaware that science is an important study at Athabasca University and I was pleased to have the chance to enlighten him. I pointed out that I had learned at this conference that performing chemistry experiments was not just a laboratory procedure, but instead involved critical thinking and computer synthesis of data. In fact, the research carried out by a good number of the chemistry students in attendance was not what we would consider “traditional” laboratory research. It was no different from research a psychology student might carry out with a Stroop test, or what a sociology student might do with observations of human behaviour. The only difference was that the chemistry students use chemical compounds to create their data.

At the closing banquet, we enjoyed a brief presentation on “synchrotron”, a science facility based in Saskatchewan that uses beams of light and magnets to create super-powerful microscopes with multiple applications. Check out: to learn more about this fascinating venture. At the conclusion of the banquet, the awards were presented, and both Dr. Pitchko and myself were proud of my daughter when she received one!

I found this conference to be an exciting and inspiring insight into the world of science. By its conclusion I had reinforced to myself that science is not limited to the laboratory, and that the research projects I’ve been doing in my courses are as valid as those carried out in any university, and can be equally important. Science can be described as a search for answers to questions – any questions; and therefore, as university students, science is part of our daily studies. There are different types of science, and not all of us are engaging in traditional scientific analysis. However, we all should be doing research in the process of learning, and we can take what we learn from our research and apply it to every aspect of our lives.

Since attending the conference, I’ve done some research myself into whether similar scientific conferences exist for psychology students like myself. I’ve not yet discovered any where undergraduate students can have a similar opportunity like the WCUCC – to present their original research. I have, however, joined the Canadian Psychology Association, and I will be actively seeking research opportunities to share with fellow students.

One of the most important lessons I took away from the conference was the need to have a vision of where we are going. This is particularly important at AU, since we are often struggling along, taking a single course at a time. Its easy to lose sight of an end goal because it seems so far into the future – yet without an end goal we may become discouraged and give up when things get difficult. Like those undergraduate chemistry students I met at the conference, all of us are going places with our university degree, and all of us will eventually make our mark on the world. Although most of us will not make an important scientific research discovery – we will all change the world for the better – whether it is by adding to our collective knowledge, by becoming better persons, by setting examples for our children, or by some other means large or small. The theme of the WCUCC conference, “reward your miracle,” is an appropriate one for all of us at AU – since we will all be able to reward our own miracle through our accomplishments.

WCUCC Conference:
Concordia University College Chemistry Department:
Canadian Light Source:
Casino Regina:

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.