Do You Have A Passion For Science And Are You Interested In Doing Real Research?

This semester, I had the chance to interview Ms. Roberta Silerova, a chemistry teacher at John Abbott College and initiator of the Independent Research Project.

What, essentially, is the program about?

So, the idea of the course is so students join the course and are paired with a research supervisor. […] He or she usually has a research grant of some sort. […] They are usually affiliated with a university, or sometimes a cégep. […] So, I get all the supervisors to agree to take the student. […] [The students] meet their supervisor usually before the end of semester, so sometime in December, and then after that they start their real work [real research] in January. They might get reading material over the Christmas break and then they start going into the lab.

What field can you research in?

We cover a broad range of different fields. […] So, from the very hardcore like theoretical physics all the way to growing trees and stuff over at MacDonald campus in the plant side.

For whom is this program for?

You do have to be strong academically, […] but I wouldn’t want that to put someone off. […] There are students who’ve done the course in the past who’ve failed one of their science
courses. […] It’s not about an R-score or high average. […] I just think it’s for those who really wonder about it or have a curiosity about science beyond the book learning, but that would be the student who I think would be good. I mean, I say that, but it could also be students who really like lab work, like in chemistry, rolling up your sleeves… […] But there are other projects too which are more theoretical.

How much work should be expected from this course? 

I think the work load is average for a science option course, but it also fluctuates, as do other science courses. […] In terms of the time commitment, we meet once a week on Wednesday mornings. Beyond that, the student is required to commit one day a week to research. […] I tell them 9 to 5, but there’s not a lot of homework compared to other courses. The work that you’re doing is kind of the work in the lab. […] So, the hope is that, at least if it’s a project you’re really engaged with, you stop counting the hours. […] You want to stay the extra hour to finish the extra measurement, that kind of thing.

What are the main difficulties students in the project would face?

I think when they first get the summary of the project and they get a bit of background reading material, they often can be — not every project — but often they can be overwhelmed by the material. They come to me and say, “I’ve read it, I don’t understand it”, because it is usually a step beyond what’s done here. […] The other thing is once they try to take measurements and things don’t work. […] You can go in one day a week, and you can go through three weeks and nothing’s working. […] That’s very alarming for students who are used to going in and in two hours collecting your data. […] And you can come to the symposium at the end of the semester and you can present all your results. They may have been all negative results: this didn’t work, that didn’t work, change in the temperature showed no difference… I mean, those are all results. […] But that’s a real […] shift for our students, I think.

What do you think students ultimately gain from being in the project?

That exposure to research, yeah, which is so different from anything we do here in the lab. […] And it’s fun, and a lot of you, I think, go into science because you like that kind of challenge. […] Those students, I think, get to try that out and think, “Damn. I’m pretty good at that. I solved this problem and got this measurement”, and so on. And students also may say, “Ooh… Research is not for me. I found that too stressful, too dissatisfying, too weird… It didn’t play upon my strengths…”, whatever. […] And even if you like research, you might say, “Research seems okay, but I am never going to do organic chemistry again. I don’t like being in an organic chemistry lab.” That’s great to know before you start a chemistry program.

What would you recommend for any student wanting to be in this course?

Well, just to apply!

Virginia Rufina Marquez-Pacheco

Science & Tech Editor

Originally published in Bandersnatch Vol. 47 Issue 07 on January 24, 2018

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