Teaching creative chemistry

Science

- Brad Buie

Dr. Fraser Hof at work in the lab with student Sarah Khan. Photo: UVic Photo Services.

UVic chemist Fraser Hof sparks a passion for learning in his students

Fraser Hof has held fast to his joy of discovery. “I’ve never lost the spirit of just trying stuff out,” says Dr. Hof, Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Supramolecular and Medicinal Chemistry.

The sentiment applies equally to his classroom and his lab. Hof gives his third- and fourth-year undergraduate organic chemistry students original, cutting-edge research literature to study. And he sets high standards for them.

“You should be able to read an article, interpret it, tell me something intelligent about it,” says Hof, “And at the highest level of understanding, create the next experiment or idea.”

Students respond with enthusiasm. They come to class prepared to tackle the tough problems presented in the research papers. They teach each other and learn together in teams. Hof then asks them to search online for papers in which scientists are using similar techniques.

“I really need them to avoid the expectation that learning is whatever is delivered in class,” says Hof. “When they go out into society and the workplace, they’ll need to find knowledge themselves. Nobody gives you a textbook for life.”

For undergraduate students eager for more, Hof provides opportunities to do research in his lab. Over 100 undergraduates have taken him up on his offer. Hof tries to include all students who are interested. “The only limit is the capacity. For me, it’s never about GPA.”

Hof’s motivation derives from his own struggle as an undergraduate. At age 18, he was seeking a summer job in a lab. He was turned down by a dozen professors before one finally agreed to take him on. He admits he began as a bad chemist.

I broke things, I spilled things, I did dangerous things, but I loved every minute of it. Then the summer after that I was less dangerous and I did get to be a good chemist.
—Fraser Hof, UVic chemist

While not romanticizing research, Hof ’s passion for the process is evident. “Real research is hard,” explains Hof. “Unlike prefabricated experiments that teach you basic techniques, real research teaches you what to do when they fail.”

Hof has a set structure for apprenticeship in his lab. Undergraduate students spend the first semester doing basic chemistry steps that help other people’s projects. In the second semester, they think about what projects they want to pursue. Then, once they have acquired the basic skills of research (which differ from the technical steps in chemistry) they’re running their own research projects with increasingly less connection to the graduate students.

“The graduate students are the backbone of the lab,” Hof says. “But I’ve had undergraduates publish as first authors.”

Sarah Khan, a 3M National Student Fellow and undergraduate student, worked in Hof’s lab on a drug designed to fight prostate cancer. “I learned the importance of creativity in the research environment,” says Khan. “We met regularly as the 20-member lab group and in smaller groups to collectively brainstorm ideas. Fraser attended every meeting, always emphasizing teamwork and communication.”

Indeed, Hof will debate the merits of an idea with his students. When they are passionate and undeterred, he always urges them to go ahead. Sometimes they come back and plunk a successful sample on his desk. “The best moments are when the students prove me wrong,” Hof says, grinning proudly.


Three athletes Hof admires:

  • Kelly Buchberger—hockey player, now coach, formerly of the Edmonton Oilers
  • Mesut Özil—Arsenal F.C. soccer star
  • Arjen Robben—Dutch professional soccer player

Photos

In this story

Keywords: alumni, chemistry, teaching

People: Fraser Hof

Publication: The Torch


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