June 7, 2021

Class of 2021: Sharing chemistry’s wonders thrills science grad

Mentorship and outreach vital ingredients in Jonathan Cann’s PhD experience
Jonathan Cann
Jonathan Cann

For Jonathan Cann, the wonder in chemistry started in kindergarten with a balloon experiment and continued through his studies at the University of Calgary.

Cann, who graduates with a PhD in June, remembers as a preschooler in Newfoundland watching an air-filled balloon being immersed in a vacuum flask of liquid nitrogen. The extremely cold liquid chilled the air (gas) molecules and decreased their kinetic energy inside the balloon, causing it to shrivel. But once removed from the liquid nitrogen, the balloon reinflated, regaining its original volume and shape as the molecules reached higher temperatures and expanded.

“That sort of magical transformation really stuck with me and gave me a very strong mental image of, ‘Wow! Wonders can happen and they happen in chemistry and science,’” Cann says.

Support for grad students

Cann, who obtained an Honours BSc in chemistry from the University of New Brunswick, arrived at the University of Calgary in 2015 to do a master’s degree. After a year, he was doing well in his courses and he had the option of taking a candidacy exam and proceeding directly into the PhD program — which he did.

Coming from a much older and smaller university to UCalgary, he was impressed with how much high-end chemistry equipment there is on campus and how readily accessible it is to students.

“That big jump in accessibility was huge for me,” Cann says. “The university does a fantastic job in supporting its grad students, especially in terms of resources.”

UCalgary also opened the door to different perspectives on chemistry, including in first-year courses he took with Dr. Darren Derksen, PhD, and Dr. Todd Sutherland, PhD, both associate professors in the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Science.

“Those courses really helped clarify what I like about the chemistry and what we were really trying to do with different sorts of chemistry,” Cann says.

When Cann joined the Welch Research Group (headed by Dr. Gregory Welch, PhD, professor of organic chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Solar Energy Materials and Devices) he received a lot of mentor support from then-graduate student Arthur Hendsbee. Dr. Hendsbee, PhD, is now technology director at Brilliant Matters in Quebec.

“I’ve also been fortunate to receive several scholarships at the University of Calgary, many of which were adjudicated at least on some level by the department or the faculty or the university itself,” Cann says.

His PhD work also was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Postgraduate Scholarship-Doctoral.

Love of learning leads to sharing

Cann’s PhD thesis, supervised by Welch, focused on the design and synthesis of photoactive compounds for use in organic electronic devices. Compared with metals or silicon now used in most electronics, organic photoactive compounds expand the possible applications, from transistors with a fully flexible microchip to organic solar cells that can be made semi-transparent and used in tinted windows that generate power.

“I love to learn and, to me, chemistry is a great way to do that,” Cann says.

Being able to make something that hasn’t been seen before. Being able to answer questions that haven’t really been asked, because we haven’t had the material both to ask them or answer them. That to me is incredible.

Much of the chemistry Cann does is visually stunning because it involves synthesizing molecules that absorb light and are brightly coloured.

To share what he calls “such beautiful chemistry” with a larger audience, he created the Welch Lab Chemistry channel on YouTube with six videos showing him synthesizing various chemicals related to his research.

This sharing of chemistry — like the outreach on a kindergarten science day that inspired him — is vital to the field, Cann says. He’s a member of an online community, through YouTube channels such as NurdRage and NileRed, of people doing chemistry at home or independent of research institutions.

Along with outreach, Cann says it’s important to give back on the mentorship that benefited him. Part of his work with the Welch Research Group included one-on-one mentoring of undergrads in the laboratory.

“When you see that sparkle when something turns on in someone’s brain, that’s a magical moment for both of you,” he says.

Welch says his laboratory emphasizes team-based projects that encompass safety, organization, efficiency and impact.

“Students are the top priority and the entire lab works together to ensure everyone is successful,” Welch says. “Jon bought into this lab mentally, and he proved an effective team member especially in terms of providing time to mentor, train and engage fellow highly qualified personnel.”

Outstanding researcher with a passion for science and chemistry

Marissa Clapson is a PhD candidate in organometallic chemistry in the Piers Research Group (led by Dr. Warren Piers, PhD, professor of inorganic chemistry) that shares office space with the Welch group in the Energy Environment Experiential Learning building.

“Jon has been an outstanding researcher,” publishing a dozen academic papers, Clapson says. She and Cann also worked together on several outreach projects, including the Department of Chemistry’s School of Magic and ChemEscape at Calgary’s annual Beakerhead festival.

“His passion for science and chemistry is evident in the way he interacts with school groups, young researchers and new graduate students,” Clapson says.

Cann has moved to Edmonton to do postgraduate work with Dr. Rik Tykwinski, PhD, professor of organic chemistry at the University of Alberta. This work also will focus on organic electronics, but from a more fundamental perspective of looking at molecules with very unique and unusual structures and how they might perform under various conditions.

As part of his postdoc work, Cann will take on an even larger mentorship role, with graduate students working on large projects.

UCalgary convocation

Congratulations, Class of 2021!

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