Meet 2018 Vanier Scholar Karen Morenz

September 20, 2018 by Dan Haves

Karen Morenz, a 3rd year PhD student in the Wilson Lab, is one of nine 2018 NSERC Vanier Scholars from the University of Toronto.

What was your reaction to being named a Vanier Scholar?

Probably not what you would expect. Though I’m very grateful for the funding and the award, and proud of what I’ve achieved, I can’t help but focus on the ways in which my lucky personal circumstances played into this. Awards like the Vanier emphasize ‘leadership’ and reward students who put a lot of effort into unpaid activities like volunteering to coach kids hockey, or offering services as a mentor and youth leader.

I love doing these things, but having worked in various industries and with organizations catering to impoverished people, I know many extraordinarily talented people who are at least as deserving as I am, but who could not have a hope of winning this award because they had to focus on working at jobs during their school career in order to make ends meet or to help support poor family members where possible.

To be honest, I think it’s a bit sad that our largest graduate scholarship so clearly favours people who do not have these concerns. I hope that I can one day set up a scholarship to meet the needs of talented and hardworking people who did not have the same opportunity to spend their time volunteering for leadership roles that I did, because they instead needed to spend every spare second working for money in order to keep afloat.

Tell me a little bit about the research you’re doing in the Wilson Lab.

The Wilson Lab focuses on energy and light transformation processes. We use lasers to understand how materials transfer energy within them to absorb or emit light at different energies. Some people in my group are working on very applicable things, like making better “up conversion” devices for more efficient electronics. I’m very much on the “fundamental science” end of things, looking for a new kind of energy transfer process called bright singlet fission. But if it works my research could also be used to improve solar cell efficiency!

What keeps you busy outside of your research?

Well, nowadays I spend a lot of time coaching hockey, and sometimes even coach hockey coaches, and I spend a lot of time doing circus silks, and a bit of time helping to organize the Chemistry Olympiad, and a bit of time helping my parents with every weird gardening project that pops into their heads (there are many!). I’m also working on helping a friend to expand a not-for-profit tutoring organization for impoverished or formerly impoverished students which she founded in Ottawa, but this project is still in its infancy. On a less work-related note, I love to go camping with friends, and read or sometimes write short stories, and have taken up Ukrainian folk dance which is an odd juxtaposition with my celtic fiddling.

But you would probably prefer to hear about the things that helped me win the Vanier, in case you want to give it a shot. I was formerly a Varsity hockey player, and though I had to stop playing competitively due to knee problems, I continued to be involved in every aspect of the game, especially coaching, and have been head coach of a team for two years now. I also became a whitewater trip guide, teaching people of all ages to navigate the wilderness, and later went on to work at the Tim Horton’s Childrens’ Ranch, a really great not-for-profit offering free camp for underprivileged kids. In the latter half of my undergrad, I helped to found the Space Systems Division of the University of Toronto Aerospace Team, and with them lead a team of biologists and engineers to design and build from scratch a 3 litre satellite to measure the gene expression of pathogenic yeast in space.

This project helped me to win a grant to spend a summer conducting research at the NASA Astrobiology Institute of the University of Hawaii, where I met some amazing astronomers and worked on some exciting research on the subject of solar system formation and water distribution within our solar system, with future applications in the field of space mining. All of these experiences helped me to hone my leadership skills, which I have applied to a wide variety of smaller but no less exciting projects over the years.

How has the department of chemistry helped you reach your goals?

The chemistry department has been my home for quite a while now, since I did my undergrad here as well, and I think that everyone here knows that the amazing staff in the chemistry department make a world of difference to all of the students here. No matter how many times you mess up or come to them with the same dumb question, they’re always patient and enthusiastically helpful.

We also have incredible research opportunities here, with some of the best chemists in the world, and I’ve been fortunate to work in many different labs during my time here. Each of them felt like home, and each taught me different skills and helped me to find my own path. In particular, I think we have a great culture here of students helping each other out, and I knew from my first research experience in the Ozin Lab with now-Dr. Jon Moir that chemistry research was definitely for me, all because of the amazing environment in our department.

Moreover, the professors are really great for supporting students in whatever they want to do. Professor Ozin was a big help for me in landing the grant that sent me to the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Hawaii, even though it took me away from his lab. Professor Donaldson, my undergraduate thesis supervisor, has never stopped giving me advice, even when I moved to the Wilson Lab for my PhD. Without Professor Donaldson’s help, I could never have gotten so far, so fast, and I’m so thankful for his mentorship. It’s clear that the people here really care and really work hard for students, even though they have so many students and so little time, so I can’t thank everyone enough for all of their time and hard work. It’s really humbling and inspiring.