'A visionary initiative'

(Edmonton) Edmonton bills itself as Festival City, but little is known about the air quality at the city’s famed outdoor festivals. So this past summer, two University of Alberta undergraduate students, Chakanaka Zinyemba and Marc Parsons, walked around some of the city’s festivals and measured the effects of ambient air pollution.

The duo was among 120 undergraduate students who presented their research during the university’s first Undergraduate Research Symposium Nov. 17 and 18. They are also among the next generation of “brilliant researchers” that U of A president Indira Samarasekera says the university is helping prepare to tackle the issues of the future.

“We believe that all future jobs are going to require people to ask questions and innovate, whether it’s in their workplace or as full-time researchers,” Samarasekera said at the symposium. “So research is a way of training people to think in a way wherein they don’t just absorb information, they actually reverse the process, and ask questions. It’s asking questions that often get us to come up with new ideas and that are why undergraduate research is so important,” she said.

Samarasekera recalled an exchange with the first graduate student she supervised. She says the student kept returning to her office with questions that she would answer, but not to the student’s satisfaction, until one day the student asked, “‘Is there anyone, anywhere, in this entire university, who can answer any of my questions?’’’

“What was happening was that he was being challenged to think about the right questions,” Samarasekera said. “The greatest researchers figure out how to ask the best questions, that’s what research is all about. And our motto, which is whatsoever things are true, is about seeking the truth in your research questions.”

The symposium was created to celebrate undergraduate research at the university and to encourage more students to participate in research, says Emerson Csorba, vice-president academic of the Students’ Union. He says the symposium, which brought students from all faculties, is the largest in the country.

“This sets us apart in Canada whereby the university and the Students’ Union are collaborating to host an undergraduate research symposium of this size.”

Samarasekera says the broad scope of the symposium helps set the U of A apart from the rest. “This is symposium is a visionary initiative. Students will choose to come to the U of A when they find out that they would have an additional experience that would enlarge their ability to think critically,” said Samarasekera. “The whole purpose of a research-intensive university is about educating the next generation of students.”

And the academic director of the university’s recently established Undergraduate Research Initiative, Connie Varnhagen, says the initiative stands ready to support students tackle their challenging research questions.

“We are celebrating some incredible undergraduate research and creative works projects [with this symposium],” she said at the event to the students.

“I offer my sincerest thanks to you for contributing to the advancement of knowledge and the enhancement of our society. And congratulations for developing the knowledge, skills and attitudes that make you an informed citizen and a leader; you are truly leading our society with the work you are doing.”