Student stories

Work term as research assistant helps chem student develop skills

Karlee Bamford

University of Victoria doctoral student

Chemistry honours student Karlee Bamford spent a work term as a research assistant for a UVic doctoral candidate. She was able to put her skills into practice in the lab, and she discovered a better understanding of her career goals in the process.

1.   Who is Karlee Bamford?

My name is Karlee and I am a 3rd year honours chemistry student. I was born and raised here in Victoria; my family has a very long history on the island. I chose UVic partially out of love for the island, but primarily because of the exposure I had had to the chemistry department and its facilities while in high school. I am the sort of person who loves pretty much everything, my interests vary considerably. If I had to narrow them down (so difficult) I would say that I love mathematics, physics, archaeology, and chemistry the most.  Choosing between these for my undergraduate studies was VERY difficult. I’m always conscious of the fact that I don’t actually have to choose just one…but there is no such thing as a combined math-physics-anthropology-chemistry degree, so I had to settle in some fashion. I think I was attracted to chemistry because it has a way of tying many topics together. Similarly, it may be applied in many fields and to many problems. I’m always surprised and pleased with how my knowledge and understanding of chemistry pop up in my daily life. Chemistry has given me a far reaching understanding of the world around me and that is precisely what I wanted from my undergrad

2.     How did you hear about the co-op program?

In high school,I was fortunate to have teachers who were encouraging of hands on learning experiences and who would frequently recommend co-op to their senior students. When I declared my major in chemistry I naturally had co-op in mind.

3.     How many co-op work terms have you completed?

Just one! I have done several research projects, in the same style of work term that I did, however these are particular to the chemistry department and not technically work terms. Regardless, my work term was my second research project. I am now on my fourth semester of research.

4.   What was your co-op job title, role, and responsibilities?

My generic job title would be something like “undergraduate researcher” or “research assistant”. I worked closely with a doctoral student on his research project in main-group coordination chemistry, a subsection of inorganic chemistry. This type of chemistry essentially seeks to expand the understanding of bonds between p-block elements (those on the right side of the periodic table). To put this into perspective, organic chemistry involves the study of carbon compounds (also in the p-block), whereas main-group investigates compounds featuring any number p-block elements bonded to one another. My task was to make a selection of compounds that his project investigates. This involved synthesizing the compounds in question, assessing spectroscopic data to get a preliminary sense of a reaction’s success or failure, crystalizing the products, characterizing the products’ structure by X-ray crystallography, and further collecting spectroscopic data (e.g. IR and NMR spectra) to assert the identity of the compounds. In making these assessments and characterizations I did a significant amount of literature searching in order to find related compounds and make comparisons between my findings and those previously reported (if at all reported).

5.     What did you hope to learn from working for your co-op employer?

I wished to develop confidence in the lab in contexts outside of the undergraduate experience. Undergraduate labs vary in the level of technique required, but generally speaking the techniques are familiar and straightforward. When new techniques are introduced there is always an instructor nearby to advise you on how to proceed when you’re not quite sure what to do and who is willing to share the secrets (i.e. voodoo magic) of good lab technique. As a researcher you really have to develop confidence in your decision making, as you can’t know which way of proceeding will be the most efficient or successful, or even safe to do. I was never left to my own devices (safety hazard!), but I definitely had a lot of independence in my work. I wanted to have this experience before graduating and potentially pursuing research as a grad student; it seemed, and proved to be, invaluable.

6.     How closely did you work with your supervisor?

Myself and members of the research group I was in each met with our “boss” (professor and department Chair) once a week to discuss our respective projects. These meetings were structured to suit my own needs: from seeking advice on experimental work to proof-reading work that was to be published. There were also weekly group meetings, attended by all members of the research group, to present current research in the group or recently published material related to our work. I did work “side-by-side” with a doctoral student, and he was in effect my supervisor.

7.     What did you learn on your work term? New skills? Responsibilities?

The chemistry that I was working on required a completely inert atmosphere (i.e. no water or oxygen) because of the sensitivity of the compounds we work with. Working in a “glovebox”, a nitrogen atmosphere work station fitted with gloves (think of Homer Simpson!), was difficult to get used to. Simple tasks are surprisingly difficult in a glove box, as the gloves themselves are very large and you lose a lot of dexterity. From learning to use my hands in this different way I’ve become better equipped in delicate procedures in all sorts of lab work, especially undergraduate. I also spent a lot of time trying to grow high quality crystals so that I could send them to an X-ray crystallographer….this requires a huge amount of patience and a steady hand. Prior to this work term my hands tended to shake terribly when doing anything of this sort, but not anymore!

My responsibilities were not unlike those in an undergraduate lab: keep a tidy work station, always label your reactions so that others know how to safely work with them/around them, etc. One responsibility that was entirely specific to this job, or this type of chemistry, was maintaining a dry atmosphere in the glovebox. Bringing objects in and out of the box was achieved through a port. Ensuring that this port was securely shut and properly dried before use was a constant consideration, as not only my own work but that of my coworkers would have been ruined if the glovebox and port were improperly used.

8.     How did your work term relate to your academic studies?

I’m a very academic person and would someday like to pursue a career in academia/research. As an undergrad I have become aware how competitive the academic world can be and have heard the saying “Publish young, publish often” too many times to count. This work term served two purposes: it introduced me to the academic world I’m considering for my future, and it exposed me to a subject in chemistry that I wouldn’t otherwise learn about in undergraduate courses, as co-ops generally tend to. I chose to do this work term mostly for the former of those two reasons.

9.  What made you excited about the job?

In a very novel way I was excited to be making compounds that no one had ever made before. There was a sort of excitement about that that made the job a great deal of fun. Growing crystals for crystallography is really a trying task…when those crystals are usable AND they reveal a chemical structure never seen before, it is really a cool feeling.

10.  How did this work term help you in your career journey? Did it help you focus on a particular career?

The job has provided me with a lot of great research skills that I would not have been able to get in an undergraduate lab. It has taught me a lot about the aspects of chemistry that I find interesting and those that I do not, whereas before I was unsure of what I liked and disliked. I still don’t quite know what sort of chemistry is best for me, but at least now I can narrow my search.

11.  How did you use your core competencies in the workplace?

The core competencies came into almost all aspects of my job. Communication was the competency that I wasn’t expecting to “grow” in. At weekly group meetings I was required to present my research informally yet at an academic level. In undergraduate chemistry you don’t do any kind of public speaking or scientific presentation, the work is essentially all on paper in the form of lab reports. I fortunately do not have a fear of speaking in front of people, however developing an expansive vocabulary in a new topic in order to give these presentations was challenging. I also attended a conference, where I had to present my research topics, briefly, to a collection of graduate students, post-docs, and professors who study subjects far removed from main-group coordination chemistry. My ability to deliver information effectively was tested at this event. 

Learning from your mistakes and “failure” were reoccurring aspects of my job. Mistake and failure aren’t really appropriate terms in research, I learned. We cannot predict exactly how chemistry will behave, or if it is even possible. When our best guess turns out to be incorrect, or only half correct, we can’t “beat ourselves up” about it. I personally can be a perfectionist when it comes to details, my grades, and success with school. Coming to terms with mistakes and failures in this light has completely altered how I assess my own successes in school. I am still highly critical of myself and the quality of my work, usually more so than the average student, but I think I’ve managed to make this a constructive quality and not one that is harmful to myself.

12.  What advice do you have for other students who are thinking about taking part in co-op?

I think it is a great decision, even if you only do it once, like me. I am very fortunate to be in a program that offers a lot of volunteer [research] experience, but clearly not all disciplines have these kinds of opportunities. For people like me who aren’t really sure if they love what they’re learning, giving the real world analog a try can help clarify many doubts/concerns. A work experience serves to teach you, or at least get you thinking about, what it is you’re really passionate about. It doesn’t matter if you end of disliking your particular work, just as long as you learn from the experience (and can hopefully come to enjoy the experience). I can’t say that I’ve ever personally regretted a learning experience…for this reason I say “go for it” to students who are thinking of doing a co-op work term.

13.  What are your plans for the future?

More research! I have continued to work with my employer for another two semesters since the end of my work term. For this coming summer I have secured another research grant and will work on a completely new project with a different professor. After graduating I’ll most likely pursue chemistry, ideally in some combination with paleoanthropology.

More about Chemistry co-op