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Jean Burnell, professor

A day in the life

Jean Burnell, professor

Jean Burnell, Chemistry Professor.

“I try to instill in them the desire to excel. Not just for the marks, but because it’s cool to know. That’s really why people should be going to university.”

Taking students to the edge of science


Jean Burnell recently won the university’s top teaching prize, the Dalhousie Alumni Association Award for Excellence for Teaching.

He teaches between 300 to 500 students in a busy year and he gets to know them all. He believes everyone can rise to the new intellectual challenges university life demands of them.

Students respond to Dr. Burnell. He treats them like adults. They describe his lectures as “amazing,” “clear, organized and understandable,” “interesting and interactive.” One student even wrote, “never let him retire.”

At the heart of his role as a scientist and teacher is the desire to connect students with the wonder of knowledge and the motivation to keep searching for answers.

“I try to instill in them the desire to excel. Not just for the marks, but because it’s cool to know. That’s really why people should be going to university.”

By the fourth year of your chemistry degree, Dr. Burnell’s advanced courses will take you to the very limits of chemistry itself.

“I teach things that are pretty current. I deliberately put in things where the ending is sort of vague. We say, okay, this is the end of knowledge. You have reached this and you should have picked up enough to have some ability to predict what to do next.”

It’s an exciting time to study chemistry, he says. His field has changed a lot in the last 10 years and continues to grow rapidly. As an synthetic organic chemist, he creates impossibly small, complex carbon-based molecules that form the basis of life.

“We’ve got to a point in our basic knowledge that the size and complexity of the questions that can be asked and the research that can be tackled has really taken a considerable jump.”

His goal is to pass on an idea of what you achieve as a scientist and give you the confidence to take science that next step further.

“I hope to introduce [students] to something where they will desire to know more, because they see that not only are they capable of it, but they see the intrinsic beauty of the world.”