Having taught at UBC since 2015, Professor Jason Hein is thorough, creative, and great at giving analogies and demos. I fondly recall how he used umbrellas to show repulsions and a paper ball fight to explain double reactions.
In my first year, I took Prof Hein’s section of CHEM 123 (Thermodynamics, Kinetics and Organic Chemistry). His energy made him all the more interesting and personable—so much so that I wanted to understand why he chose chemistry as his playing field and to get some academic advice.
As one of the first in his family to complete university, Prof Hein studied biochemistry in his undergrad at the University of Manitoba.
“I signed up for biochemistry because I liked the molecular sciences. In my first and second years, I had a phenomenal biochemistry teacher. He’d say, ‘Look, a rock, my pencil, you are all made of the same thing. It's about how you’re put together. Organization matters.’ That really resonated with me, that everything you see is made from the same stuff.”
During his undergrad, Prof Hein realized that his interests lay more on the organic chem side. He wanted to know ”how any reaction worked, why reactions work at all.” So, Prof Hein completed his Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry with an NSERC scholarship. For his Ph.D., he designed and synthesized a now commercial compound that facilitated the creation of other molecules (he has it at his office!).
After completing his Ph.D, Prof Hein finished 2 postdocs, the latter being in chemical engineering. He always raised strong analogies during CHEM 123, and he used one now: “A Ph.D. was learning how to cook, a postdoc was how to design recipes, and a second postdoc was how to start a restaurant.”
Outside of teaching courses, Prof Hein runs a research group, one where artificial intelligence is enabled as a digital lab assistant. The students he works with are incredibly diverse. They include undergrads, grad students, postdocs, and Research Associates—and, in terms of disciplines, the team has chemists, engineers, computer scientists, and data scientists, all contributing their unique skill sets and areas of expertise.
“It’s like a small company,” Prof Hein explains. “We’re doctors for reactions. We understand what’s wrong, we fix it, get it back on its way. We build the tools to understand what's going on and look for new reactions we haven't discovered yet.
“As synthetic chemists, we become the architects of matter.”
By now, I’d noticed a stuffed pony in a box under his desk. It curiously fit right into our conversation:
“I had a lab student who was phenomenal at some of the coding things that we were doing,” Prof Hein recounts with a grin. “I once jokingly said something like, ‘If you can do this, I’ll buy you a pony.’"
And when the student did? Prof Hein honoured his promise: "I went on to Amazon and bought a pony—I had no idea that they're that big—and since then, I’ve started to define ‘pony-worthy tasks.’ If you achieve one of these projects—pony.”
Some organic advice to first-year students
Here are 5 academic (and life) tips Prof Hein offered:
1. “Don't treat the courses as if you’re filling out an objective or checking a box. The purpose of coming into university is to learn how to learn.”
2. “Stop memorizing things, start understanding things. I started asking about all the concepts I was learning, I tried to go down to the bottom. Why does it work this way?”
3. “Cut the complex problem into pieces, so there are smaller problems to deal with. For example, there are thousands of reaction combinations, but there are only about 4 or 5 reaction classes, so learn the basic rules.”
4. “Help teach, get into a group with other students, try to become a peer mentor. By helping to educate somebody else, you start to really understand the material yourself.”
5. “Never compare yourself to people sitting beside you. They’re probably struggling at something else that you're just rocking.”
And, more generally:
“The biggest challenge as an undergrad could be grasping that link of ‘Why am I learning this? How does this fit into the bigger picture?’ You're doing them because they're on the course calendar, but you're not really sure why. Give your lecturers a little bit of time to reveal why they're doing what they're doing."
“It's difficult to see when you're down in the trees, but the forest is beautiful.”
If you're a Science student (like me), here are some tips specifically for you:
On choosing your major
Prof Hein's advice is to choose “an area of science that answers your questions.” For him, his questions revolved around organic chemistry and making molecules. He says, “Chemistry sits right at that apex of what I need to understand, the bits and pieces of the world, but also the biology and materials of the world.”
Another way is to look for a science whose underlying assumptions make sense to you. “If the rules and models that we use to simplify the science is okay with you, then you're in a good area. If somebody in a lecture tells you this is why something works, and that’s not a satisfying answer, you could be in the wrong field.”
On choosing your career
“You don't have to be a doctor.” Okay, okay.