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VIU began offering a chemistry major in September 2018 after construction finished on the four storey Health and Sciences Building. In the pre-COVID-19 era, you probably strolled through the beautiful building even if you didn’t have classes there, and enjoyed the view of the Georgia Strait and the mountains beyond it while you studied.

Despite classes transitioning online until further notice, chemistry students are still managing to have some lab classes in person. Some assignments have been adjusted so students can get creative and fulfil requirements in their own kitchens. Misha Zvekic, Rebekah Aplin, and William Lattanzio-Battle will be the first three VIU Bachelor of Science graduates with a chemistry major. 

Misha Zvekic will be graduating with a double major in chemistry and biology in April 2021. She has focused mainly on environmental chemistry and biology in her upper-level classes.

“I was drawn to chemistry by accident,” Zvekic said. “I only took grade 11 chemistry in high school and I wasn’t enamoured in first or second-year chemistry [courses] in university. It was really only in third year, when I was taking upper-level chemistry courses for my minor, that I realized how much I loved the work and how interesting I actually found molecules. Now I can find all the things I overlooked beforehand and appreciate them in a new light. Chemistry only gets more interesting the more you learn.”

Rebekah Aplin graduated from Bowden Grandview School in central Alberta. She is pursuing a chemistry major, with a specific focus on environmental chemistry, and will be graduating in December 2021. Aplin always knew she’d find herself in chemistry.

“I love understanding how things work, and the challenge of problem solving and abstract thinking—I enjoy that kind of studying much more than bulk memorization, something I realized very quickly during my first semester at university.”

Aplin started her Bachelor of Science with a biology major in mind, but quickly transitioned into chemistry courses after she was introduced to the Applied Environmental Research Laboratories (AERL) in her first year. The AERL is VIU’s own research laboratory that provides work for VIU summer students who are keen on learning lab techniques. The AERL allows undergraduates to do research, and it’s also where some UVic graduate students run experiments and conduct their studies at a distance.

“There are so many ways we can make the world better using chemistry,” Aplin said. “It is so cool that we can take what we learn in the classroom and turn around and use it to answer questions about how the world works, and ultimately use that information to solve real-life problems like climate change or world hunger.”

Since going online in the spring, Aplin has found that her home study skills have actually improved a lot, but she does find herself missing the days of seeing classmates and professors face-to-face every day. She prioritizes eating well and getting outside for exercise as much as possible and is very dedicated to CrossFit.

William Lattanzio-Battle will also be graduating with his chemistry major in December 2021. Chemistry has always come somewhat naturally to him since high school, and it seemed like the obvious choice for him to continue studying.

“For whatever reason, chemistry really clicked with me, and on top of that I really enjoyed it,” he said. “During my year off from school after high school I heard that VIU was getting a new building for the chemistry department and that was going to open up a lot of new opportunities. So, that was my confirmation that chemistry at VIU was for me.”

This year he has focused on biological chemistry courses as upper-level electives to set himself up for the possibility of medical school in the future; courses such as Bio-organic Chemistry (the chemistry of enzymes), Natural Products Chemistry (how living organisms produce chemicals and how those chemicals can be used in medicine), and Macromolecular Chemistry of Biomolecules (chemistry that can be performed on biomolecules for the purposes of understanding biological systems).

Lattanzio-Battle has a close group of friends to study with. Even if they aren’t in the same courses, they keep each other motivated and encourage one another to do their best no matter the circumstance. He has one in-person class this semester, the CHEM 491 Undergraduate Research Project, where he is working on his own time in the AERL running local water samples to detect levels of sunscreen contaminants. He got involved in the AERL after applying for an Undergraduate Student Research Award that funded a summer of research between his second and third year.
Zvekic has also had the opportunity “to scratch [her] research itch a little bit.” She is able to be in the lab to work on a research project where she is combining principles of biology and chemistry in order to test the amount of contaminants in shark livers, such as heavy metals and organic pollutants.

Zvekic has been working at the AERL for three years—she toured through the lab in high school and was in awe of the mass spectrometers and the lab itself.

“I never thought that I would want to work in a chemistry lab or really that I would ever deserve to work in one,” Zvekic said. “I thought I was going to be a biologist, so I got involved in research almost accidentally by taking chemistry classes with professors involved in research and showing that I had aptitude and interest in the work. The chemistry professors at VIU are extremely nice people and love getting students involved in research even in coursework, if possible, and it was my professors that provided me with these opportunities. It really changed my life.”

The chemistry major opened up a lot of interesting upper-level classes for many students—even those pursuing a minor. Zvekic explained that experiencing how a chemist obtains, interprets, and summarizes data is vital and that each step brings its own challenges and joys.

“It gave us many new courses in areas that [we] wouldn’t be able to explore otherwise, which I think helped me understand many more different areas in chemistry and how they interact with each other and other scientific fields.”

Some of the students’ favourite and most anticipated upper-level courses that have been offered with the major are:

  • Atmospheric Environmental Chemistry (CHEM 301)
  • Aqueous Environmental Chemistry (CHEM 302) 
  • Chemical Instrumental Analysis (CHEM 312)
  • Integrated Organic/Inorganic Lab (CHEM 351)
  • Advanced Analytical Chemistry (CHEM 412)
  • Natural Products Chemistry (CHEM 433)
  • Structure, Bonding, and Properties (CHEM 441)
  • Undergraduate Research Project (CHEM 491)

Aplin is looking forward to starting her undergraduate research project in an upcoming semester. “I am especially excited for CHEM 491 because I get a fair bit of creative freedom with the research area I choose.”

Aplin said, “The major is giving me the space to get to know myself better, and to understand what area of chemistry is best suited to me. [I’m] immersed in all different areas of chemistry, whereas a minor just scratched the surface.” It has also opened up many research opportunities that wouldn’t be possible at a bigger university, she said, because there are less students here and so much physical lab space. “Even a bit of extra lab experience makes me feel that much more confident moving onto grad school.”

Aplin also plans to continue studying environmental chemistry in graduate school.

Lattanzio-Battle hopes to pursue medical school, and wants to focus on providing care to remote Indigenous communities in BC when he graduates.“I am hoping the amount of hands-on experience and intellectual challenges I have received during this major will help with getting into and performing well in medical school,” he said. 

The choice to pursue a major has affected each student differently as they approach graduation.
Zvekic said, “I think a major made me a more well-rounded chemist. There are certain demanding courses I might have avoided if I was just doing a minor, but often the most demanding courses teach you the most about a topic and yourself.”

For those students on the fence about a major, Aplin said, “The stream I took was not the one I would have guessed for myself, so I am really glad I stayed open to trying things that seemed less intuitive to me. Chemistry can be difficult, but I am so thankful I decided to major as it has opened so many doors and I have grown in ways I didn’t even know I wanted to.”

Lattanzio-Battle said, “There are so many interesting courses in the chemistry department that in order to take advantage of as many as possible, I would strongly recommend taking the major. As well, the major requires you to take [courses that] have very practical hands-on lab components to them which will be super useful for any sort of future career in a science lab.”

Zvekic said, “Check out a wide variety of chemistry courses during your minor—you might find a course which makes you do work that you’ll want to do for the rest of your life. Even if you don’t, you’ll undoubtedly learn analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills in these classes that you can take with you wherever you go afterwards … When you’re start finishing a class and you find yourself missing it, that’s kind of a sign that that’s probably what you want to do with your life.”

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