The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Dr. Alán Aspuru-Guzik on how to become an undergraduate researcher

In conversation with the prominent chemist-computer scientist
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
Dr. Alán Aspuru-Guzik is cross-appointed to both the Departments of Chemistry and Computer Science. JOHNNY GUATTO/UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO
Dr. Alán Aspuru-Guzik is cross-appointed to both the Departments of Chemistry and Computer Science. JOHNNY GUATTO/UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

Many students try to find research during their undergraduate years, whether for graduate school admissions or the thrill of discovery. But there are relatively few resources available to advise students on how they can become a successful researcher.

Since arriving at U of T from Harvard University in 2018, Dr. Alán Aspuru-Guzik has become one of the Department of Chemistry’s most notable researchers. His research applies artificial intelligence and quantum computing techniques to chemistry, including for drug discovery. This novel approach has earned Aspuru-Guzik the position of Canada 150 Research Chair in Theoretical and Quantum Chemistry.

Aspuru-Guzik spoke to The Varsity about research opportunities and how students can get involved during their undergraduate studies.

Where to get started

When asked about what kinds of research environments promote the best outcomes, Aspuru-Guzik said that an “unstructured environment” is ideal. This kind of setting is outside the classroom, where there is no structure to support students — they can sink or swim on their own merit.

“Paradoxically, I don’t think it’s the classes where you learn the most,” said Aspuru-Guzik. “I would say the biggest key to the secret across all universities is the research laboratories, where every student can enter a new universe.”

Aspuru-Guzik’s own research began when he started working on quantum physics problems in a lab as an undergraduate student, solving Schrödinger’s equations using computational methods.

While many students are eager to be a part of the research process while attending university, it can be a daunting environment to enter. Aspuru-Guzik advises students interested in research to approach a professor and ask about doing research.

He also recommended exploring research abroad opportunities hosted by U of T, such as the Research Excursion Program.

The value of being multidisciplinary

An important aspect of becoming a researcher in the modern day is the ability to work across different disciplines. A study published in Nature found that peer-reviewed studies are increasingly citing papers from other disciplines.

At U of T, undergraduates have the option to study in either a specialist program, two major programs, or a major and two minor programs. Aspuru-Guzik believes that there is no practical difference between choosing a major or specialist program. What is more important is doing well in your courses and taking a balanced course load.

“Some people like to specialize in one thing very well and stay there forever; some people like to specialize in one thing and [then] jump to another one, and some people want to be multidisciplinary from the beginning. All of them are okay,” Aspuru-Guzik said.

However, being multidisciplinary in your studies is substantial because it can provide multiple perspectives to a given problem, especially considering that most problems have multiple aspects to them. “A perfect example is the current coronavirus,” said Aspuru-Guzik. “[It] can be seen from the social aspects, from the chronic aspects, political aspects, [and] all the way down to the molecular aspects.”

Research as international collaboration

Today, we can easily connect to people from all over the world. An everyday example is how students from different parts of the globe are attending online classes and conferences.

It should be no surprise that researchers do the same and work with their colleagues from other countries. An article published by Nature Index reported that international collaborations have tripled in the past 15 years.

Aspuru-Guzik advises U of T undergraduates to take advantage of the summer abroad opportunity offered by the Faculty of Arts & Science. He himself took a study abroad position at New York University when he was an undergraduate in Mexico. “It was really fantastic because I got to spend four months in another city and that allowed me to think about studying in the United States.”

Aspuru-Guzik encourages the University of Toronto to offer more of these opportunities so that more students can study in another country. By doing so, students can learn more about a different language and culture and also use the opportunity to make international connections. These kinds of connections can potentially shape one’s scientific career, as they did for Aspuru-Guzik.

The research world is constantly changing, and everyday new breakthroughs and discoveries change the path of the scientific community. While there is no single topic or subject that would guarantee a bright scientific career, there are skills and connections that students can learn in their undergraduate years to get ready for what happens in the future.