April 15, 2020

Research associates inspire next generation of innovators with early exposure to research

Undergraduate chemical engineering course focuses on grassroots research and innovation
Chancellor Deborah Yedlin in the lab with chemical engineering students.
Chancellor Deborah Yedlin, right, stops by the CERC lab to meet students. Melanie McDonald

When the University of Calgary launched its innovation ecosystem, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Material Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs (CERC) Dr. Steven Bryant, PhD, saw an opportunity to weave CERC’s Discovery to Impact Pipeline into the institutional fabric of the university. CERC is home to a world-class lab, leading researchers, and has long been a home for discovery and innovation. When Bryant asked his team if they could design a course that would enable undergraduate students to experience that same discovery and innovation, they far exceeded his expectations.

Partnering with the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in the Schulich School of Engineering, CERC research associates Dr. Paula Berton, PhD, a chemist, Dr. Ali Telmadarreie, PhD, an engineer, and microbiologist Dr. Robert Barnes, DPhil, developed a comprehensive 13-week course that would cover the full spectrum of research and innovation for second-year undergraduate students in the chemical engineering program.

  • Photo above: Chancellor Deborah Yedlin, far right, stops by the CERC lab to meet students and instructors from the Introduction to Research and Innovation course. From left: Ali Telmadarreie, Mario Ochoa, Arash Behsudi and Steven Bryant. Photo by Melanie McDonald

“We wanted to create an opportunity where students could be exposed to research early on as undergrads, while also applying effective models from across campus,” says Berton. “Our diverse backgrounds allowed us to offer a unique set of challenges to students, so they could decide on the problem they were interested in and we could provide the tool kit to explore that problem and develop potential solutions.”

The diversity brought to the table by the research associates encouraged interdisciplinary research and provided students with heightened exposure to subject matter they would not have gotten through their traditional programs. “Our students are from engineering, so they wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to pursue microbiology,” says Barnes.

“Maybe one of these students will become an award-winning microbiologist, because they got exposure to something they wouldn’t typically explore.”

An Introduction to Research and Innovation

Composed of both lecture and lab time, the course began with research fundamentals.  Working in small groups, students were allowed to pick their own problem to solve from two major challenges: industrial wastewater treatment, and novel ways to kill bacteria to overcome antibiotic resistance. After learning how to perform a literature search, students were tasked with reading scientific papers and encouraged to come up with a novel solution that they could go on to test in the lab.

Paula Berton shares course lab work with Steven Bryant.

Paula Berton shares course lab work with Steven Bryant.

Adrian Shellard

Once ideas were formed, students developed a research proposal, similar to what would be needed for a research grant application. Then students received pitch coaching so they could feel confident selling their idea to a panel of experts from the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering: Bryant, along with Dr. Milana Trifkovic, PhD, Dr. Roman Shor, PhD,  and Dr. Arin Sen, PhD.

Enabling students to develop their own approach fuelled curiosity in the lab. “When you can develop your own idea, you feel more invested finding the best possible solution,” says Telmadarreie. “We allowed students to pursue any idea and process they wanted to, and we were there to support and guide them every step of the way. We received emails in the middle of the night from eager students because their ideas kept them awake at night.”

In fact, students became so invested in their research endeavours, they even requested additional lab time. “There was a sense of excitement for them, developing their own ideas,” says Berton. “We didn’t set any limitations and our students were motivated by their own results in the lab.”

A move from prescribed learning

For many students, research can be a mystery. Faculty and researchers from the Schulich School of Engineering were eager to overcome the stigma associated with a career in research by hosting a course that would demonstrate research from a translational standpoint and help students realize their potential as innovators.

“We wanted our students to see that they can tackle interesting, open-ended problems that may span multiple disciplines, and to think about translatability en route to developing meaningful solutions,” says Dr. Arin Sen, chemical and petroleum engineering professor and department head. “Regardless of whether or not our students choose to pursue research, they are learning skills that will make them professionally stronger, and more adept at problem solving.”

Robert Barnes works with students Gillian Alm and Jessica Tremblay.

Robert Barnes works with students Gillian Alm and Jessica Tremblay.

Melanie McDonald

Assistant professor Roman Shor thinks courses like an Introduction to Research and Innovation are essential to teaching students how to make a meaningful contribution. “Most undergraduate students are given a prescribed recipe for what they need to do in the lab, and students don’t often understand the scientific method behind a problem,” he says. “Here, students are picking a problem and designing the procedure for themselves. They are being given the opportunity to innovate their own solution.”

For students, this new format of course delivery provided a refreshing perspective to research and opportunities available on campus. “I really enjoyed the opportunity to do something different and learn new skills,” says second-year chemical engineering student Sage Redelback. “In a typical engineering class, it can be rigid in terms of content and discovery. Here, we were able choose what we wanted to pursue, and I have left this course more confident and comfortable in a lab setting. I feel more inclined to pursue research and innovation after this experience, even in areas that might not be exclusive to my faculty or major.”

Both Shor and Sen credited CERC’s amazing staff and facility for the positive outcomes of this course, which highlight CERC’s Discovery to Impact Pipeline, a proven mechanism that transforms innovations made in the lab to commercialized products.

Moving beyond the lab

Time spent in lectures wasn’t completely dedicated to learning research fundamentals. Half of the lectures were dedicated to entrepreneurs and innovators — those who have seen success taking their research out of the lab, commercializing it and turning it into a startup.

“We utilized all of the tremendous assets on campus, other departments, the Hunter Hub, and Innovate Calgary, to showcase that work doesn’t have to stop in the lab,” says Berton. “We wanted our students to learn how to develop a patent and see how their idea can be commercialized and developed into a business.”

Startups were eager to participate in the program as well. “Our guest lecturers were motivational and inspiring. Everyone we asked agreed to participate, and expressed interest in coming back,” says Berton.

One of the guest lecturers was Amanda Hall, CEO of Summit Nanotech. “I am really happy to hear about this fantastic course that is hitting all of the key points for what it takes to build a company,” says Hall, who discussed the importance of disrupting patterns in business and society, making wise transitions and having the ability to quickly adapt.

“With challenges and problems comes innovation and creativity,” says Hall. “This course is providing future innovators the skill set required for adaptive positioning.”

Adaptive positioning is exactly what happened when the course had to transition from UCalgary’s main campus to an online format due to COVID-19. “Unfortunately, our students were not able to follow their lab results through to the end of the program, but they had completed enough work to have achieved results,” says Berton. With those results, students were required to develop a patent, and present their outcomes to a panel of judges.

Introduction to Research and Innovation will hit the academic calendar again in January 2021. If you would like more information about the course or would like to engage with the CERC team or facility, please contact cerc@ucalgary.ca.