PhD Candidate's Research at VIU Lab Rewarded in Copenhagen

VIU alumna Larissa Richards has come a long way from her days as a high school student in Port Alberni. The PhD candidate recently spent six weeks in Copenhagen studying with the world’s leading students and scientists in the field of chemometrics.

July 27, 2016 - 3:00pm

VIU alumna Larissa Richards presented findings to world leading scientists in the field of chemometrics. 

VIU alumna Larissa Richards is spending her summer back at her alma mater, hard at work in Vancouver Island University’s (VIU) Applied Environmental Research Laboratories (AERL). But the University of Victoria (UVic) PhD candidate did get a break from her schedule when she was asked to participate in a six week course at the Copenhagen School of Chemometrics.

“I was definitely excited and thankful for the opportunity but it was no holiday,” said Richards with a laugh. “The program included 12 seminars that lasted anywhere from one to five full days in length.”

Richards was one of more than 60 students chosen to participate in the course from places as diverse as Bangladesh, Argentina, China and Sweden. The students came together in Copenhagen, Denmark where they were challenged on their own research and mentored by the most prolific chemometrics scientists from all over the world.

Chemometrics is an emerging area of study that involves the applications of mathematics, statistics, and computer science in solving chemistry problems. Richards, who attended Alberni District Secondary School, graduated VIU with a chemistry and math double minor which naturally led her to chemometrics.

Thanks to a partnership between UVIc and VIU, she was able to launch her doctorate project under the supervision of UVic professor Tom Fyles and VIU chemistry professors Drs Erik Krogh and Chris Gill in the AERL. Richard’s project involves providing mobile, real-time monitoring of chemical components in the air using a modified mass spectrometer that is mounted in a van. She describes the mass spectrometer as a “very sensitive nose.”

“It can detect one or two molecules in a billion molecules of air. Our goal is to apply chemical forensic techniques to identify ‘fingerprints’ in the data in real-time while driving around, which is pretty cool,” said Richards. “For example, pine trees smell different than car exhaust because of the chemical composition of the molecules that are being released. This will help us answer questions like ‘what is the sample contaminated with?’ and ‘where did this contamination originate from?’”

At the end of the six week course in Copenhagen students and professors got together to vote on which student gave the best presentation summarizing their research project. Richards presentation won, and she was awarded a certificate honouring the achievement, her tuition for the course was paid and she got three kilograms of chocolate, which she brought back to Canada to share with her labmates.

“I have contact information for all of the participating professors and they told me if I have any questions to contact them anytime so that alone is an incredible resource for me,” said Richards. “Just having the opportunity to explore the culture, beauty and history of Copenhagen is something I won’t ever forget.”

The state-of-the-art instrumentation Richards is using is part of a funded Canada Foundation for Innovation project to develop a mobile mass spectrometry laboratory at VIU. It will be used to determine how chemical compounds change over time and space. Dr. Krogh says Richards work is being applied to air quality monitoring on Vancouver Island and the lower mainland with the support of the Fraser Basin Council through the BC Clean Air Research Fund (BC Clear).

“Larissa is a homegrown success story and we couldn’t be more proud of her achievements in Copenhagen,” said Krogh. “The work we’re doing to make on-the-fly measurements of trace contaminants in air from a moving vehicle is taking the technology we have and pushing it to its limits, and she is on the leading edge of this important research.”

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Tags: Student Success