UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 5 | May
For the love of chemistry
By Bud Mortenson
“I love chemistry” is hand-written down the front of Jessica Pilfold’s lab coat. Front, back, sleeves and sides, the coat is also adorned with colourful thank-you messages from chemistry students she helped this year as a teaching assistant at UBC Okanagan.
Pilfold is about to graduate with a chemistry degree and is considering a future in teaching chemistry—or maybe forensic lab work—as she moves on from being an undergrad, a teaching assistant, a tutor, and a student ambassador, to become a graduate student this summer. It’s the next phase in an educational adventure that began four years ago, when Pilfold moved from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to attend the brand-new UBC Okanagan.
“It was more than I expected,” she says of the campus when she arrived in August 2005 as one of the first students at UBC Okanagan, and one of the first to receive a four-year UBC Major Entrance Scholarship totaling $40,000.
Pilfold says she learned important things about herself during her four years as an undergraduate. “With a major in chemistry and a minor in math, I found I could be interested in different subjects at once,” she says. “And I learned how to manage my time. Something a lot of students struggle with is finding a balance between school and work. I found having a scholarship – allowing me to focus on academics – was very beneficial.”
Though her scholarship alleviated some of the financial pressure of student life, Pilfold found it rewarding to work on campus. For two and a half years she served as a student ambassador leading visitors on tours of the UBC Okanagan campus, and she joined the Academic Resource Centre as a chemistry tutor. “They are jobs that I enjoy, not out of necessity but out of desire – things like tutoring and being a teaching assistant.”
At the end of her third year, Pilfold received an Irving K. Barber Undergraduate Research Award which funded a summer of chemistry research under the supervision of chemistry researcher Alaa Abd-El-Aziz – who as Provost holds the position of top research and academic officer at UBC Okanagan.
The summer project had Pilfold developing a special kind of molecule called a calixarene that can have many useful real-world applications.
“We were creating molecules shaped like baskets, with the goal of attaching smaller molecules to the upper and lower rims of the basket, and then making a polymer (even larger molecule) of the new material,” she says. “Calixarenes can have filtering properties and sensing properties – you could use them to, for example, take contaminants out of drinking water.”
The experience ignited new research ideas, and that summer project became the focus of her fourth-year honours project in organic chemistry.
“The Undergraduate Research Award project gave me hands-on experience in a lab doing research that has never been done before – it’s on the leading edge, new, and very exciting,” says Pilfold. “I became more aware of what I wanted out of my degree and it definitely nudged me toward thinking about graduate studies.
“Kudos to Ike Barber for donating the money for such an important and rewarding program,” she says of the forestry magnate and UBC alumnus who has contributed more than $30 million to support initiatives at both UBC campuses, including the Undergraduate Research Award program in the Okanagan.
“It’s something not a lot of students get to do. If you receive a URA, you’re really lucky,” says Pilfold. “You’re in for an experience that teaches you things you could never learn in a classroom. It gives you a breadth of knowledge that makes you really well-rounded in a particular subject area. It helps you decide what you want to focus on.”