National research awards provide unique summer jobs for students

August 6, 2010 - 4:52am

Four Vancouver Island University science students are among Canada’s most promising student researchers.

Kyle Duncan, Megan Willis, Zach Yim and Dane Letourneau received prestigious Undergraduate Summer Research Awards from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada worth $4,500 each.

The awards, topped up by $2,500 from VIU, cover their wages for 16 weeks of summer employment in VIU’s multi-million dollar Applied Environmental Research Laboratories (AERL) at the Nanaimo campus.

The students are conducting sophisticated research while being mentored by Chemistry professors Dr. Erik Krogh and Dr. Chris Gill.

“The focus of our work relates to developing better, faster and cheaper methods of chemical analysis in soil, water and air,” said Krogh. “We’re developing new and improved measurement strategies to analyze complex environmental samples in real time. We are on the forefront of bringing high precision chemical measurements to the field.

“This remote monitoring capability will be extremely useful and cost effective. It will provide immediate information that can answer health and safety questions at contaminated sites. The innovations resulting from our research will provide us with new tools to study important environmental problems.”

Krogh and Gill, co-directors of the AERL, lead an exciting program of research and provide year-round educational and employment opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students on a diverse range of applied and discovery-based research projects.

Letourneau, a third-year students, is working on a project aimed at understanding the photo-degradation of chlorinated contaminants in natural waters. His work involves investigating the light-absorbing properties of different molecules and their ability to initiate the breakdown of an important class of chemical contaminants.

“By understanding the factors that control these processes, we gain insight into chemical transformations in the natural environment and can potentially design better treatment processes,” said Krogh.

Yim, also going into his third year, is working on a project to develop real-time methods for detecting gasoline and oil contaminants in air, soil and water. The goal is to develop mobile detection systems for rapid on-site testing.

“The USRA award has given me a unique opportunity,” said Yim. “Working on cutting-edge research into rare or never before attempted methods of chemical analysis is an exciting and fascinating experience. As a third-year undergraduate student, the chances of taking part in research are generally very low, however, at VIU it has been made possible. I have enjoyed my summer in the AERL lab, and look forward to working in similar environments.”

Krogh said students working in the AERL become fully engaged in the discovery process of research. They develop skills in environmental sampling, chemical analysis, method development, data interpretation and presentation. Throughout the year, they are encouraged to participate in meetings, attend conferences and co-author peer-reviewed publications. Many proceed to graduate school.

They also benefit from Krogh and Gill’s close partnerships with academic research partners nationally and internationally, as well as scientists at government agencies and in the private sector.

“The hands-on research experience in the AERL has changed my perspective on education and my performance,” said Duncan, a recent Bachelor of Science graduate who is working on expanding the range of a novel environmental monitoring technique called membrane introduction mass spectometry.

“My grades improved substantially and my classroom studies seemed more relevant and interesting. The lab experience has given me a better understanding about science and tools I need to succeed in graduate school and beyond.” Duncan will continue working in the AERL during the fall term before pursuing a Master's degree.

Third-year Bachelor of Science student Megan Willis, who won her second USRA this summer, also agrees the AERL experience is invaluable for undergraduate students. She is studying how chemical properties of contaminants, like polyaromatic hydrocarbons, affect the environment.

“This incredible experience has helped me realize the importance of what I learn every day in the classroom,” said Willis, who is completing a double minor in Chemistry and Math.

“People don't usually think of science as creative, but when you're given a question and have to create an experiment to figure out how you're going to answer it, that's creative, interesting and exciting.

"The science faculty at VIU love teaching. They go out of their way to give students a full and enriching experience, and help you realize your dream of becoming a scientist."

To find out more about the AERL, visit

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