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Environmental chemistry a passion for graduate student award winner

GRADUATE STUDENT AWARD WINNERS: PhD students Bu Lam (right) and Catherine Febria (left) are congratulated by Prof. John Coleman, Vice-Principal (Research & Graduate Studies). Photo by Edward Eng.

by Stephanie Leung

Curiosity is what drives him, says a PhD student in chemistry who is one of the winners of a graduate student research award at U of T Scarborough.

Bu Lam is one of two recipients of the 2007 award, along with PhD student Catherine Febria. (Click here for a profile of Catherine Febria.) The awards are decided by a selection committee composed of faculty representatives from the departments, graduate students, and the Vice-Principal (Research & Graduate Studies.)

Lam says he is fascinated by environmental chemistry, and he believes that a sense of wonder is vital to a career in science. “People must have a curious mind to be in this field,” he says. “That’s certainly what motivates me.”

Lam’s research focuses on the structures and interactions of dissolved organic matter (DOM), such as that found in lakes, rivers and soils, in the environment.

The best part of his research is the fact that it can be applied to the environment, he says. “Chemistry is often about theories and concepts related to molecules and atoms,” he explains. “But with environmental chemistry, you can take the science and apply it to the real world -- to something that is tangible, that you can see happening in our environment. Being able to apply this knowledge to things we can see and touch really fascinates me.”

Lam earned his honours BSc in Biochemistry at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and is currently in the final year of his PhD. He describes his research as challenging and varied. “Because we’re dealing with environmental samples, there’s not just one pure compound in our samples. I think that’s the hardest part. We’re not studying one component -- we’re studying thousands of compounds all mashed together.”

Dedication is also crucial to the challenges of research, he adds. Lam spends eight or more hours in the lab each weekday, and he says he is willing to put in the time because he enjoys his research.

This award is not the first for Lam. He also received and maintained an undergraduate scholarship over four years at Bishop’s, as well as receiving an Ontario Graduate Scholarship award for his ongoing research this year.

The graduate research award at U of T Scarborough recognizes students who not only excel academically, but who also demonstrate a well-rounded perspective and an interest in extracurricular activities. The award is based on several criteria: grades, interactions with staff and students at U of T Scarborough, involvement in extracurricular activities outside the campus, and overall enthusiasm towards their specific area of research.

To win a research award, graduate students are nominated by a faculty member. The selection committee normally selects one PhD student and one Master’s student for the awards. However, this year’s committee chose to recognize two outstanding PhD students.

Lam said he was delighted to learn he had received one of this year’s two awards. “The award has provided some affirmation that I’m conducting good research, so it has instilled in me an increased level of confidence.”

Prof. André Simpson, Lam’s supervisor, said the special qualities that Lam displays prompted him to submit a nomination. “What makes Bu stand out from the other students is that he is so enthusiastic about research,” said Simpson. “He also demonstrates a balance of interests both inside and outside the campus community.”

One of Lam’s recent accomplishments is a recent paper on the major structural components of freshwater dissolved organic matter in the environment. The piece was submitted to the journal, Environmental Science and Technology, and was forwarded for an award because of its outstanding quality, said Simpson.

When not conducting research in the chemistry lab, Lam keeps busy with various other activities. He serves on the executive of Scarborough’s Graduate Students’ Association (GSAS), plays in various intramural volleyball leagues downtown, and enjoys outdoor activities. Asked to describe himself, he uses the adjectives “hard-working, sociable and fun.”

Simpson said he thinks Lam has a bright future. “The award definitely increases his chances to get a top job. I have confidence that he will do very well.”

Although Lam is not sure of his specific plan once he graduates next year, he said he definitely wants to pursue something in the chemistry or science area. “Research is fascinating, and I love anything that challenges me.”

Stephanie Leung is a journalism student in the joint program offered by U of T Scarborough and Centennial College.

© University of Toronto Scarborough