Replicating the lab at home

- November 5, 2020

Alanna Gravelle. (Nick Pearce photo)
Alanna Gravelle. (Nick Pearce photo)

Working in a lab provides students with hands-on experience, developing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that advance science literacy. With science courses and labs moved online as a result of COVID-19, many students were left wondering how they might be able to replicate experiments at home.

For Alnna Gravelle (BSc’20, DipEng’20), winning a Lloyd & Margaret Cooley Memorial Undergraduate Summer Research Scholarship allowed her to spend her summer tackling this challenge. Under the supervision of chemistry instructor Dr. Rory Chisholm, Alanna designed a spectrometer to assist students as they measure the absorbance of different liquids. The data collected from these readings helps determine the concentration of an unknown liquid.

“The goal of my summer research was to build something that students could use at home but that would mimic what it is like to be in a lab. I started my degree while enlisted in the Canadian Navy and, as a result, had to take some courses via distance. This experience definitely informed my decision to develop an instrument that would deliver accurate measurements but that would still be user-friendly for students at home,” she says.   

Alanna, in addition to serving in the Navy, is currently in the third year of a Bachelor of Engineering degree at Dalhousie. She credits her summer research scholarship with giving her a thoughtful way for her to merge her interests in analytical chemistry and mechanical engineering.

“It was very exciting for me to do a project where I was able to use both my skills as an analytical chemist and mechanical engineer. It provided me with the challenge of figuring out how to develop and test prototypes outside of the lab. I had to learn how to troubleshoot and bounce back from mistakes in an entirely different way than if I had been in the lab with easy access to my instructor,” she says.

The spectrometer, which utilizes a smartphone in its design, is currently in the testing phase. She is hopeful that, after the appropriate tests conclude, the instrument will be further manufactured and used to aid Dr. Chisholm’s third-year analytical chemistry lab class.

Paving the way for female analytical chemists

The Lloyd & Margaret Cooley Memorial Undergraduate Summer Research Scholarship was established by Dr. Jean Cooley (BSc’71) in 2014.

Dr. Cooley, a preeminent analytical chemist whose career spanned over 30 years in the oil and gas sector, was inspired to create this scholarship based on her own experience as a student at Dalhousie.

“Growing up I did not have much experience with post-secondary education. Neither of my parents attended university. However, as an undergrad at Dalhousie I was very lucky to receive a scholarship to work in a lab for the summer, which gave me valuable experience,” says Dr. Cooley.

The scholarship, named in honour of Dr. Cooley’s parents, is awarded to a female, undergraduate student who demonstrates a strong interest in analytical chemistry and a penchant for giving back to their community. Dr. Cooley also funds three graduate fellowships for female students pursuing graduate studies focused on analytical chemistry.  

As one of the few female analytical chemists in Canada during the early part of her career, Dr. Cooley is excited by the increased number of women in the field. However, she notes that the profession still has not achieved gender parity. She hopes that her awards encourage young women to continue making their mark in this important field.

“I think it is vital for STEM fields to recognize the importance of having women in them — that they need women. That they need a diversity of perspectives. I believe everyone wins when there are more women of diverse backgrounds in the profession. I only hope that my awards provide the support that these women need to go and continue breaking barriers.”


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