Message from the Chair, Updates and Opinion

April 9, 2020 by Chemistry at U of T

To Our Chemistry Community,

As we live through this unprecedented period, I want to acknowledge and thank each of you for your perseverance and support of the Department of Chemistry at U of T. The COVID-19 crisis has impacted our operations in multiple ways, with significant effects on our undergraduate and graduate students, PDFs, faculty members, staff, research groups and networks, student organizations, collaborators, and alumni.

Teaching has been significantly affected, with changes to the delivery and evaluation of undergraduate and graduate courses in the spring semester. The summer semester will be similarly affected, with some courses being cancelled. As a primarily laboratory-based discipline we have been especially impacted. Most chemistry research labs across the tri-campus – including our core facilities – are closed, with exceptions for some approved critical research and COVID-19 related activities. Despite this research activity continues and where possible groups are using computation and online meetings to maintain research momentum. In-person events such as colloquia, seminars, meetings, and receptions, as well as the spring convocation have, unfortunately, also been cancelled or postponed, although a virtual spring convocation is now planned.

Of course, our experiences have and will continue to mirror and be affected by changes across the University, the higher education and science sectors, and in the broader society.

Navigating the current “new normal” is a challenge as we adapt to online meetings, physical distancing, and economic difficulties. With the many uncertainties of the COVID-19 response, some of our members are experiencing anxieties in regard to both professional and personal matters, with many separated from their extended families, or finding themselves working in non-ideal home spaces. This is particularly the case for a Department, such as ours, with such diverse membership. As such, it is important that we each take measures to prioritize mental health and wellness now more than ever.

A flurry of planning and operational changes were required over the last month or so, and we are now turning our attention to the challenges ahead, including working with our students whose degree and research programs have been impacted, planning for the summer and fall courses and labs, and the eventual reopening of our research laboratories and facilities. In the meantime, we are offering various departmental and research group-specific online activities. Our student organizations are additionally responding in a variety of ways: ChemClub, for example, has initiated Friday “eDonuts”, a weekly literature club on COVID-19, and a Tuesday meditation session. We are also providing opportunities for undergraduate and graduate course revitalization through the well-established Chemistry Teaching Fellowship Program.

The Department has played a significant role in sharing critical supplies. For example, at the St. George campus, Chemistry donated over 50,000 of the approximately 250,000 pairs of disposable gloves distributed across U of T to the hospitals of the Toronto Academic Health Science Network. Additionally, members of Chemistry are proposing, consulting, or involved with nascent research and practical initiatives related to COVID-19 at UofT and beyond.

Chemistry is resilient and we continue to plan for the future, including the introduction of initiatives such as a new professional development component for our graduate program in Fall 2020, curriculum renewal at the first-year undergraduate level, continuing investment in our students, the hiring of new faculty members, renovations to our research laboratories and critical instrumentation, and planning for a proposed extension to the Lash-Miller Chemistry building.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in ways that will surely resonate for many years to come. I am heartened by the stories I hear from the broader chemistry community as well as from across Canada (see for example, the Governor General of Canada’s “Caring Nation” request). Our thoughts particularly go out to those directly affected by COVID-19 as well as front-line health care workers, emergency personnel, and other essential workers.

Ultimately, we must appreciate that this is a global situation that is impacting everyone to very differing degrees. As chemists, we are very fortunate to be in a position to make a difference. It is incumbent that we recognize and utilize the advantages and opportunities afforded to us to address such significant societal and global challenges. It is more evident than ever that science must play a key role, must inform decision making, and must provide practical solutions. As chemistry is so deeply rooted in problem solving and practical application, I am confident in the abilities of our community, and that by working together we will be able to respond to the challenges ahead.

Finally, rest assured that as our Department addresses this evolving situation, we will continue to share information as it becomes available.

My best wishes to you all. Keep safe.

Prof. Rob Batey
Chair, Department of Chemistry
University of Toronto