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October 24, 2002 Science College bridges the gap



Deborah Cohen and Sébastien Fournier

Deborah Cohen and Sébastien Fournier say it’s motivating to work with science students from outside their own area.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Sophie Pelland

As an undergraduate physics professor of mine once put it, “The difference between doing problem sets and doing research is that when you’re doing research, you don’t know the answer, and you say to yourself, ‘This isn’t going to work. I need a beer.’ ”

Beer aside, his point is clear: Researchers need to be self-motivated and to enjoy working on open-ended problems, something that assigned problem sets with known answers can’t prepare for.

Learning by doing

Michael von Grünau, principal of the Science College, thinks that you can only learn to do research by “getting your hands dirty” — actually doing it. This is also the philosophy of the Science College, which offers undergraduate science students the opportunity to participate in research projects throughout their studies, either at Concordia or at other universities or research centres.

Student Sébastien Fournier, who worked with Dr. Marc Hauser at Harvard’s Primate Cognition and Neuroscience Lab last summer, thinks the Science College played a key role in creating this research opportunity. In fact, Sébastien met Dr. Hauser at the Science College when he gave a public lecture at Concordia. The College also helped Sébastien expand his horizons and consider doing projects at some of the top research labs in North America.

Like other students in the program, Sébastien is enrolled both in a regular science program (typically an honours program or a specialization) and with the Science College. Students in the College are expected to complete the degree requirements for their department as well as 30 credits with the Science College. The 30 credits include three research projects, cross-disciplinary courses designed especially for Science College students, and a six-credit course in the history, philosophy and social aspects of science.

Deborah Cohen, who joined the College after her second year at Concordia, especially appreciated her course on the historical, social and philosophical aspects of science. This seminar-style course dealt with major discoveries in all fields of science, ranging from black holes to the human genome project. Besides appreciating the basic science literacy the course offered, Deborah emphasizes that “all the sciences feed off each other, and anyone who’s not aware of what’s going on in other fields is missing a piece of the puzzle.”

Her enthusiasm is shared by Dr. Vesselin Petkov, who taught the course last year. He was so impressed by his students’ research papers that he decided to include revised versions in a textbook on major scientific advances that he plans to edit.

Michael von Grünau joins Petkov in praising the performance of the Science College students. He wants to win more official recognition for the Science College program by having it offered as a Minor in Interdisciplinary Science Studies.

The Science College gives students 24-hour access to its 2080 Mackay St. building, which has desks, computers and space for studying and relaxing.
Deborah and Sébastien say it’s both useful and motivating to be able to work with bright students from areas of science other than their own.

The College runs three lecture series: public lectures by renowned scientists like Ford Doolittle, who spoke recently; the Montreal Inter-University Seminar in the History and Philosophy of Science, whose most recent speaker was Hubert Reeves; and the Montreal Inter-University Physics Seminar. The Physics Seminar was organized by Dr. Petkov to encourage discussion of open questions in physics between students and professors from the four Montreal universities.

Petkov is adamant about undergraduate involvement in research: “Once students start participating in research, they will drop their science fiction novels. The real thing is much more fascinating!”