Getting to Know You: The StFX Chemistry Department

This article, written by StFXAUT Communications Officer Philip Girvan, originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2017 edition of The Beacon.

Small classroom sizes, individual opportunities like small and private lab spaces, and close, personalized instruction are among the benefits that the StFX Department of Chemistry have provided third year honours student Oliver Kuehm. Kuehm extolled the benefits of what The Beacon assured him was a fairly rare occurrence, “With the profs coming to you …you get to learn from a first-hand perspective what they’re doing. You have a lot more knowledge before you go into a circumstance”.

Kuehm eventually accepted an invitation to work on a research project led by Assistant Professor Dr. Geniece Hallett-Tapley that is investigating light-induced reactions. Dr. Hallett-Tapley explained the research to me as “using light to promote reactions. Find[ing] things that are more environmentally friendly and kind of playing on the solar energy boom with the ultimate goal of using visible sunlight to promote these types of reactions. It’s what we call photo-catalytic green chemistry”.

This is just one example of the interesting research projects being undertaken by the small but vibrant department. Over the last year, Dr. Shah Razul has been working on ways to better improve the preservation and freezing of lobster. The News recently profiled this work. According to Dr. Razul, lobster is the first step, and that once it is demonstrated, his “cryoprotectant formulation is better than anything else out there, then you can go to anybody…and, of course, once you have success with one system, you can extend it to other systems: there’s scallops, there’s crabs, there’s fish…ice cream. There’s no shortage of things”.

Dr. Razul noted that the department’s small size requires faculty to operate outside the academic silos typically found in larger institutes. This allows StFX researchers “to pursue a passion for scientific activity”. Dr. Hallett-Tapley also emphasized that the department, “pride[s] ourselves on the interdisciplinary collaborations. It’s just a completely different model of how the academic environment works”.

This collegial and collaborative atmosphere is a hallmark of the department. Department Chair Dr. James Cormier credits some of this spirit to the department’s size: “It’s hard to put your finger on. I think people just want to do a good job. I think we’re the right size department. It’s hard to have factions in a department that only has ten [faculty] in it, I think everybody understands that they’re all needed, that it’s not going to work unless we all work together”. Dr. Cormier also credited the department’s five Lab Instructors, saying that “you could not run this place in any way without the lab instructors. They are great. They are also very helpful. They propose things. They have a lot of initiative”.

Working together allows the department to do the best with the relatively small amount of research funding available. Dr. Hallett-Tapley mentioned that “[o]ne of the ways we can all get around these funding pinches is, since we do have such a close-knit relationship, we can just go next door and say, ‘hey I have this idea and it might play on what your expertise is. What do you say we get together and try to do some work together?’. [T]hat’s a really common thing in our department”.

The Beacon asked Kuehm, what, as he prepares for his fourth and final year at X, is next? He shared that his “goal [his] entire life has been to go into med school. I’ve just written my MCAT”. While he’s not one hundred percent certain that medical school is the next step, he does want to “use this degree to enter a profession where I can help other people with my knowledge of science”.

Related Stories:
New research funding will create unique opportunities for StFX researchers and students
Using light to charge a battery – research partnership between St. Francis Xavier University and Genair8 Technologies
Chemistry professor receives invitation to contribute to two special journal issues
Chemistry prof studying ways to keep frozen lobster fresh
Canadian professor fishing for answers on preserving frozen lobster
St. F.X. gets funding for study on chemicals made from light