Alum of the Month: Sara Guzman

Sara Guzman stands in front of a building, wearing an orange sweater.

September 15, 2021 - 9:15am

Sara Guzman has always been fascinated by tiny things you can’t see with the naked eye, from microbes to chemical reactions in cells. It’s the reason Guzman knew she wanted a science career.

Her parents encouraged her to pursue higher education. Guzman, originally from Bogota, Colombia, decided to attend university abroad and selected Vancouver Island University (VIU). She graduated from VIU in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. After graduation, Guzman worked as a technician at the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and is now a chemist at Health Canada.

“I am proud of all the work I did involving the overdose crisis and where I am now in my career,” says Guzman. “I was the first female drug checking technician at the BCCSU.”

Guzman is also a member of the Chief Science Advisor’s Youth Council and in July she emceed the Government of Canada’s announcement about green jobs and opportunities for youth in climate action. Guzman shares more about this opportunity, her time at VIU and what’s next for her. 

Why did you choose VIU for your education?

I chose VIU because of the location. I am originally from Colombia and I wanted to study abroad, but I wanted to go somewhere warm, beautiful and close to nature and the ocean. VIU had it all. I applied after the deadline, and to my surprise, I got accepted. 

Tell us a bit about your experience at VIU.

My four years at VIU were a combination of late nights at the library and weekend adventures with my friends. It is true what people say about university being one of the best times of your life, but it is also full of challenges and never enough sleep. I had so many papers, exams and assignments that I felt like I was constantly trying to catch up. I remember the Starbucks runs at 8 pm, right before they closed; or spending the very inconvenient three-hour block between classes grabbing whatever leftover food was at the cafeteria, and running back up the stairs to the fishbowl to study. I wouldn’t change anything about my experience. It was in university that I met the people who I hope will be my friends for the rest of my life.

Were there any unexpected benefits you discovered after becoming a student?

In my second year, I had the wonderful opportunity to work as a summer research assistant for Dr. Jessie Key. I learned a lot about science research, report writing and persistence. Being a research assistant for Key, and later on for Dr. Alexandra Weissfloch, as well as taking research courses, is what made me realize the career I wanted to pursue. It was because of Alexandra and Jessie that I found a passion for green chemistry, synthesis and innovation. Because of their support I was able to get the experience necessary to grow as a scientist. 

How did your program prepare you for what you are doing now? 

VIU gave me a lot of the skills I need for this job. I never thought I would be working in a government lab, but it was because of my lab experience at VIU and the close relationships I built with professors that I was able to get this opportunity. I also just applied for graduate school at the University of British Columbia, something I am sure I can succeed at because of everything I learned while completing my degree at VIU. Both Jessie and Alexandra encouraged me to continue studying and helped me with my application, for which I will be forever thankful. 

Can you share a time when a prof made an impact on your learning experience? 

One of my favourite memories of university is when I went to a green chemistry conference with Alexandra. My partner Jeremy and I were at the wedding of one of Alexandra’s students. Alexandra was telling me how she was about to go to Portland for the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference, where she was presenting. She said she had extra seats in her car, and offered Jeremy and I a ride and a place to stay. We went home, grabbed our passports and a change of clothes, and headed to Portland. It was the first time I hung out with a professor outside of university, let alone stayed at their house, and attended a conference for one of the largest scientific societies in the world. I got to listen to people from academia and industry talk about their cutting-edge research. My mind was blown by the amount of research being done that will help us move towards a more sustainable society. 

What advice would you give VIU students following a similar trajectory as yourself?

Talk to your professors. Take advantage of the small classrooms and go to office hours. Join study groups like Peer Supported Learning, join new government initiatives like youth councils, and apply to all the scholarships, jobs and internships you are interested in.

You were recently part of a government announcement due to your role through the Chief Science Advisor’s Youth Council. Tell us more about that. 

It was through Dr. Jessie Key, a VIU Chemistry Professor, that I heard about the Chief Science Advisor’s Youth Council. Being part of this council got me involved in science policy and I’ve had the chance to meet some incredible people. Discussing the role of the scientific community during this pandemic with this group was an eye-opening experience. Due to the imminent climate emergency we are facing, now more than ever youth voices are urgently needed in policy. 

What’s next for you?

I want to pursue a Master of Science in Chemical and Biological Engineering, with the goal of one day developing new technologies and greener ways to meet the needs of our society. Also, BC is currently facing two public health emergencies, the overdose crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, and I would be interested in developing a new technology for naloxone administration using green polymers.

Tags: Biology | Chemistry | Science & Technology | Student Stories | Our Alumni

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