Travel puts pH in PhD for Chemistry graduate

by Andy Poon
Staff writer

After nine straight years of post-secondary education, PhD student Philip Britz-McKibbin will mark the end of his academic journey at this month's Fall Congregation and embark on a journey of a different sort -- through the wilds of South America.

"I plan on spending the millennium in the Amazon," laughs the affable 27-year-old chemistry researcher.

With no definite plans as to what he will do once he arrives in South America next month or even where he may stay except for a vague reference to "distant family in Brazil," Britz-McKibbin sees the trip as his own version of a "practical post-doctorate program."

"In some ways it is kind of hard to step out from academia and all the expectations that once you get your doctorate you should go on to a post-doc or into industry," he says. "But it's necessary that I take a break and reflect on what I want to do with my life."

In many ways Britz-McKibbin's upcoming adventure should come as no surprise to those who know him well. The young man who recently completed his thesis on "Designing separation systems in capillary electrophoresis based on fundamental physiochemical properties of analytes," is the same individual who lists among his interests languages, world music, mythology, poetry, philosophy, martial arts, sunrises and sunsets.

"There is a lot to life," says Britz-McKibbin, who has always tried to maintain a balance between the classroom and the world outside. "There are other ways to learn besides school and travelling allows you to see life as it really is in the world."

Already fluent in French and proficient in German and Spanish, he is currently brushing up on his Portuguese for the trip. And although he's unsure what he will do on his sojourn south, Britz-McKibbin knows that he will return to the world of academia at some point.

"I love to teach," he says, admitting that he will likely return to teach at either the university or college level. And that passion for teaching manifests itself beyond the classroom and chemistry lab -- he instructs a yoga class twice weekly for graduate students at UBC.

Britz-McKibbin says he got into yoga and meditation as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto and immediately embraced the philosophy of searching for "self-understanding through contemplation." Not only does it provide balance in his busy life but he firmly believes that it has also helped in his approach to research.

"I like the discovery process and being open to unusual phenomena and being humble enough to know you don't know everything," he says. "Science is not wholly a rational thing."

His UBC doctoral research supervisor can vouch for his creativity.

"He is very creative in designing experiments," says Chemistry Assoc. Prof. David Chen. "Philip has the ability to relate the different things he does and put them together and make sense of them."

Chen relates how he and Britz-McKibbin were able to change focus during the course of their research from studying how molecules migrate to actually being able to control their migration through electric charges. Their research has applications in biomedical research, and environmental and pharmaceutical analyses.

For Britz-McKibbin, who was attracted to UBC because of its strong reputation for research, Chen's encouragement and support throughout the past five years has been invaluable.

"Working with David has been great," he says. "He gave me a lot of freedom to explore and really encouraged me to write and attend conferences and symposiums."

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