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September 27, 2001 Chemistry grads at the forefront


by Sylvain Comeau

Behind every discovery or breakthrough from a university lab, there are graduate students.

While grad students may have been largely unsung heroes in the past, they are getting more of the spotlight. A day-long chemistry and biochemistry conference last week put them front and center.

The fourth annual Chemistry and Biochemistry Graduate Research Conference was held at the DeSève Cinema on Sept. 21, featuring presentations by 67 graduate students from across Canada and a few from the United States.

They presented research papers to peers, professors, industry representatives and a panel of judges. Prizes were awarded for the best presentations, but John Wright, a fourth-year PhD student and one of the organizers, says that this was not a high-pressure event. “This is a conference organized by grad students for grad students. Especially for first-year students, this is a chance to show their research without being overwhelmed by a large international event.”

Although last week’s event is unique in North America, graduate student conferences in other fields of science are starting to proliferate. Wright feels that grad students are finally starting to get some of the credit they deserve. “Grad students have been under-appreciated for some time, so we are addressing that and giving them a little ego boost.”

Sean Hughes, a third-year PhD student, agreed. “We talk about the ‘unknown grad student’ who is an afterthought when a professor announces a discovery, but when they leave here with a master’s or PhD, they might be supervising their own labs in academia or industry, and they’ll be the ones who will have to defend their results. A conference like this is a learning experience for them. They get a lot of feedback from the experts here.”

Hughes said that the key are the industry representatives who show up to meet the students, particularly in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.

“The founding premise of the conference is to develop academic ties with industry, to help students make industry contacts, and to foster research collaborations. Industry is always interested in where new, au-courant research is going, and university researchers want to know where industry is going. So we can make ties and move toward the same goals.”

The conference enjoyed the support of a number of corporate, institutional and Concordia sponsors, including Merck Frosst, Biochem Pharma, the Concordia Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, the Concordia Chemistry and Biochemistry Student Association, the Canadian Chemical Society and the Canadian Society of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology.