Rats, tomatoes and imposters

September 21, 2018 | Campus Life, Science
This spring, MacEwan University named faculty members Dr. Samuel Mugo and Dr. Sandy Jung as the first-ever research chairs, honoured for their scholarly excellence. 

And though their academic accomplishments certainly stack up, Sam and Sandy are quick to point out that they have learned as much from their missteps as their moments of discovery.

MacEwan sits down with the two faculty members to chat about their first research endeavours, where those experiences led them and the lessons they now pass on to students. 


What was your very first research project?

Sandy (Associate professor, Department of Psychology): That would take me back to my undergrad at UBC. I was working on a biopsychology degree, and I volunteered in a lab where I did surgery on rats – ovariectomies. If there’s anything I learned, it was what kind of research I didn’t like doing. But I stuck it out for a year, and learned how important it is to be rigorous and committed to your work, even if it’s not your future career.

Sam (Associate professor of analytical chemistry, Department of Physical Sciences): I grew up on a farm where we produced all our own food – it was a very nature-connected environment. So when I went to university, I gravitated towards the natural sciences. In my fourth year, my honours mentor gave me a research project analyzing pesticide residue in tomatoes. I realized that I could use chemistry to not only understand nature, but to measure the molecules that are present in some of those materials, which actually has a positive impact on society.

You both conduct research focused on solving everyday problems. What are you working on now?

Sam: Most of my research is focused on making chemical sensors that can be used to measure different kinds of molecules. I'll give you an example: when cannabis is legalized there's going to be a need for regulating and measuring it, so my students and I are working on developing a chemical sensor that can be used in detecting the active ingredient in cannabis.

Sandy: I come from a forensic mental health background, and lately I’ve been working closely with law enforcement. Police don’t always have an effective way of allocating their resources to respond to high call volumes. For just one area, domestic violence, the Edmonton Police Service is getting over 7,000 calls a year. That requires a lot of resources to properly respond and make safety plans for the victims. So I asked, “How do we determine which cases are high risk, so we can give more resources where security and safety are a bigger concern?” My goal was to see whether or not there was a way for constables to assess risk at a frontline level more effectively than they already were.

A lot of us might imagine lab coats and beakers when we think of research. Can you describe what conducting research actually looks like for you?

Sam: Well, if you come to my lab, it's not pretty. It’s a busy, messy place, but out of it comes prototypes for solving some of the issues our society is facing. Also, we employ students to work on projects, so the lab isn’t only developing technology, it’s training human capital to go out there and innovate.

Sandy: Students think forensic psychology is “sexy” because you get to read and look at confidential files. But I tell them, “It’s not CSI.” In reality, it’s working with data in an incredibly detail-oriented, and often tedious, way. But we do have really great outcomes from the research, so if we find something, it’s phenomenal.

Can you describe the feeling of a moment of discovery?

Sandy: It’s like seeing a unicorn when that happens! When things work out it’s amazing, especially when I have student collaborators on the project, because they get really excited.

Sam: With a lot of experimentation, it’ll only work out 10 per cent of the time. Those processes help you develop the character, patience and persistence needed to do research. I also encourage students to enjoy the fact that some of it is working.

Finally, what would you tell a student who is interested in research, but may be hesitant to get started?

Sam: I always tell students, if they have an imagination and are afraid of using it, they should try thinking of it as an adventure – like a bike trail they’ve never ridden before. No matter what, once they start, it's going to be very exciting. The good thing is they don't do it alone. They have faculty mentors who will come alongside them. It makes it a bit less daunting to know they’re with someone who has ridden that terrain before.

Sandy: Some students look at others who are a little further along in their research, and they start comparing. I tell them, “We all went through this. The feeling of discomfort, thinking that you don’t know anything. That’s the whole point.” Then I tell them about what we call “imposter syndrome.” As an academic, you’ll go to conferences, and you’ll be surrounded by people who are in the big leagues in research, and you’ll feel like a small potato. I always say to students, “Embrace feeling like an imposter.” Yes, it’s an awful feeling, but the day you don’t feel that anymore, is the day you are no longer open to learning.

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