By Tyler Irving
Posted May 2012
Last month, the second cohort of Canada’s first undergraduate program in chemical biology received their degrees. First offered in 2008 by the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at McMaster University, the program is now straining against its enrolment limit, a testament to its success and to growing interest in this emerging field.
Unlike biochemistry, in which enzymes are often studied by turning off the genes that code for them, chemical biology focuses on using small molecules that interact with the enzymes. “It’s a ‘perturb-and-observe’ approach, as opposed to a ‘wreck-and-check’ approach,” says assistant professor Nancy McKenzie, who was part of the team that developed the chemical biology program for students interested in applying chemical techniques to life science problems such as drug development.
In addition to traditional instruction in physical, inorganic, analytical and organic chemistry, the team developed two new lab courses to teach techniques specific to chemical biology. These include characterizing protein-ligand interactions, synthesizing complex organic molecules, extracting bioactive small molecules from natural sources and purifying both native and recombinant proteins. Another course emphasizes skills like inquiry, critical thinking and oral and written communication skills. That was appreciated by students like Cory Ozimok, one of the program’s first graduates. “They don’t spoon-feed you the answers; it’s an environment that encourages students to do their own research, teach each other and take an active approach to learning,” says Ozimok, who is now studying medicine at the University of Ottawa.
The program’s demanding work load, high entrance requirements and enrolment cap of 40 students tend to select for high achievers: 80 per cent of Ozimok’s classmates are pursuing post-graduate study, mostly in the life sciences. According to third-year student Karen Giang, that is also part of the appeal. “The work is tough, but the profs know that we can do it and having such a close-knit group to support you really helps drive you forward,” says Giang. Like many students in the program, Giang has spent her summers working in interdisciplinary research labs like that of Molly Shoichet at the University of Toronto. Some of her classmates have even published papers.
McKenzie is pleased with the response to the program from both students and faculty. “The word is getting out there: this program is difficult, but you’re going to get trained really well.”
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