Molecular fascination

Award-winning PhD student Laura Albrecht

- December 12, 2013

Laura Albrecht inside the Chemistry Building. (Danny Abriel photo)
Laura Albrecht inside the Chemistry Building. (Danny Abriel photo)

All it took was her high school chemistry teacher revealing that the planetary model of the atom wasn’t real. That was it — from that point forward, Laura Albrecht was hooked on chemistry.

Now, the fourth-year PhD student is being honoured for her innovative work on water molecules with a prestigious Chemical Computing Group Research Excellence Award for Graduate Students from the American Chemical Society. The prize is a trip to Dallas to participate in the American Chemical Society National Meeting in March 2014, and also includes a one-year MOE (Molecular Operating Environment) software license for her research group.

Laura is one of only five computational chemistry graduate students from across North America who was given the award this year. (A Department of Chemistry faculty member, Axel Becke, is also being honoured at the same meeting in March. Read about his accomplishments here).

“It’s really affirming actually,” Laura says of the honour. “You do your research and you’re never really sure of the impact that it has and what other people think about it.”

Her research is premised on how there is still a lot to learn about water and its various properties. Due to recent advances in both theory and technology, scientists can study water molecules to an extent that was previously impossible.

“I’m trying to figure out why water has all these crazy properties, and how that applies to other areas like protein folding, which is a really big topic in the scientific community,” she explains. “[Before] we didn’t really pay attention to these tiny little water molecules, we just thought ‘whatever, [water is] everywhere, it doesn’t matter,’ but it does matter, enormously, so we now need to figure out what role they play.”

Outside the box

Laura hopes her research will improve the quality of the modelling used by the scientific community in work such as drug design. As for why she was selected for the award, she credits a unique application of a relatively new theoretical method to study how molecules interact. She encourages other grad students not to be afraid to think outside the box.

“It’s easy to be intimidated, especially with what I’m studying, there’s all these theories that say, ‘This is what is the truth’. But anything can change. So things that look strange: pursue them! Don’t just chalk it up to ‘I made a mistake’ or ‘I must not fully understand this’ because sometimes if you think it’s an anomaly or it’s different, maybe your perspective is brand new and will change everybody’s thinking.”

She doesn’t buy the argument she often hears from students that chemistry is boring or hard. As her experience shows, sometimes all it takes is one passionate teacher to turn someone on to science. “Just because you did badly in high school doesn’t mean you [have to] hate it,” she says.

Though scientists also need a healthy sense of curiosity, of course – something Laura has in spades. “I like the idea that chemistry is something we can’t see, but it’s so important,” she says. “We use these theories to explain everything around us. There’s no life without chemistry.”


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