Stepping up to the challenge


- Sarah Tarnopolsky

Growing up on the West Coast, Rory Hills developed a love for the natural environment from a young age. Photo: Rory Hills

Donors are enabling undergraduate students to tackle real-world issues

Rory Hills’ childhood fascination with science was born out of pure curiosity about the natural environment. He didn’t associate science with any significant world problems. That all changed when UVic researcher Andrew Weaver delivered a talk at Hills’ high school about the future impact of climate change.

Weaver’s message for the teenagers was that the world needed their help. “He told us that we not only had the ability to make change, we had a responsibility to strive for it,” says Hills.

Years later, while working on Weaver’s election campaign, Hills got a deeper understanding of the opioid crisis in BC. “I knew the statistics, but hearing stories directly from people affected made those losses immeasurable,” he says. Hills “began to realize how science is intertwined with broader societal issues and can be instrumental in understanding and solving them.” With a renewed drive to step up to Weaver’s challenge, he chose to major in biochemisty at UVic.

Rory Hills at Andrew Weaver's campaign launch
Rory Hills, UVic student and Rhodes Scholar, at Andrew Weaver's campaign launch. Photo supplied by Rory Hills.

Extraordinary undergraduate opportunities

During his second year, three donor-funded scholarships helped guide Hills’ academic journey down new avenues; the Hugh and Lilian Salmond Scholarship for Chemistry, Hugh and Lilian Salmond Scholarship for Chemistry of the Environment and the Karel Hartman Scholarship. These scholarships reduced some of Hills’ mental load and financial stresses. They also meant he was able to dedicate all his time and energy that summer into a research opportunity that turned out to be transformative.

Hills was an integral part of a small interdisciplinary team led by Dennis Hore, professor of chemistry, and Bruce Wallace, professor of social work, that established an innovative drug-checking pilot project. Working in partnership with local harm reduction initiatives in Victoria, the project provided quick, accurate chemical analysis of drugs, helping protect users from dangerous substances and prevent overdoses. The team also evaluated different drug-checking technologies and compiled data to better understand and address the ongoing crisis. Hills continued to work on this initiative for several years, learning firsthand how specialized scientific techniques could be applied to make a difference in people’s lives.

“It showed me just how demanding research can be, but also convinced me that it’s exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to use science to help find solutions to real-world problems.”

Rory Hills with UVic faculty member
Rory Hills with UVic chemist Dennis Hore. Photo: UVic Photo Services

A puzzle piece in the quest to reverse climate change

When it came to selecting an honours project, Hills’ infatuation with the natural world drew him back to Weaver’s rallying call about climate change. Under the supervision of biochemistry professor Alisdair Boraston, Hills investigated how marine microbes break down seaweed cell walls. Algal sugars are a potent source of renewable carbon, so understanding how they are naturally degraded can provide clues for producing biofuels from these sources. At the culmination of a rich and varied science education, Hills was able to apply techniques learned in the classroom to a brand new research problem, and contribute to the quest to end dependency on unrenewable energy sources.

During my undergraduate degree, applied research opportunities showed me the critical link between science and society and how much more powerful both can be when they exist in symbiosis.
— Rory Hills, UVic alumnus and Rhodes scholar

To Oxford: the next chapter

Most donors will never know the enduring impact of their support on a student’s academic journey. Hills’ story is still unfolding. The wealth of experience and knowledge he gained at UVic gave him the confidence to apply for a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in the UK. In November 2019, the Rhodes Trust announced Hills would be the Rhodes Scholar from BC. He is due to enter a DPhil program in the fall of 2020. This presents a big life change for Vancouver Island-born Hills, further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite the uncertainties, Hills is clear about his conviction to spend his life applying science education to real-world solutions.

“I don’t know what life will look like a year from now,” says Hills. “But I do know that if I am pursuing my passion and working towards the benefit of others, I am where I’m supposed to be.”


In this story

Keywords: research, award, chemistry, biochemistry, climate, scholarship, philanthropy, drugs

People: Rory Hills, Dennis Hore, Alisdair Boraston

Related stories