In my first year, I took CHEM 121 (Structure and Bonding in Chemistry) with Prof Zachary Hudson. His superpowers include (occasionally dry) humour, crowd-stirring jokes, and a vast capacity to take questions.
Revisiting the UBC Calendar page for my program revealed that ahead of me, for the rest of my undergrad, were many, many courses labeled CHEM. So, I figured that talking to Prof Hudson—one of the most effective and advice-equipped instructors I’ve had—would stamp out my nerves.
We met up in his office in the Chem Building. It was where I had once come, during office hours, flailing with a burning question that, once met with Prof Hudson’s customarily clear explanation, seemed less of a feral beast and one I could solve on my own.
A bright background
Prof Hudson received both his B.Sc. (Chemistry) and Ph.D. (Inorganic Chemistry) at Queen’s University. He had, in fact, started his undergrad in Biochemistry. When he found that he liked the chemistry component best, he made the switch.
His undergrad years were adventurous—he got to work in research lab positions, which inspired him to pursue academia and, later on, develop luminescent materials in his Ph.D. He distinctly remembers 2 special mentors who helped him along the way:
1. Professor Robert Lemieux, his second-year organic chemistry teacher who taught him “the logic and the elegance of organic chemistry,” and gave him a lab position which inspired his passion for research.
2. Professor Suning Wang, his Honours thesis advisor and Ph.D. supervisor, who gave him a job in his summer after fourth year. Prof Hudson says, “She always challenged me and let me try things that she thought were crazy. We disagreed about science respectfully all the time, so often we found our best science while debating.”
Trailblazing through teaching and research
Prof Hudson has taught first-year and fourth-year lectures, and likes to fit the courses he teaches into 1 term (3 months). This way, he can use the remainder of the year to pursue what he calls his “research enterprise,” e.g. applying for grants, focussing on publications, and providing mentorship.
Currently, he’s the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Chemistry, and also leads a research team, the Hudson Group, which focuses on polymer chem. Recently, the lab is collaborating with a local coffee company to create compostable single-serve coffee pods—from bioplastic!
Academic advice to spark your success
Here are some tips that Prof Hudson offers—they helped me in my first year and can help you, too:
Take good notes
“Annotate with notes to yourself in the margin like 'this was confusing,' 'potential exam question,' and so on.”
“Fancier notes (more pen colours, underlining, highlights, etc.) do not necessarily make better notes....Clarity and conciseness are most important.” (Adapted from his Reddit comment—more on this later.)
“Take a break. It doesn’t actually matter what you do in that break, just do something that’s not studying.”
“Small things are easy to forget but are the difference between a right or wrong answer.” (CHEM 121 really taught me to pay attention to details and spend more time on things I had more trouble with.)
Find mentors and resources
“Go to office hours for extra help—but not as regular tutoring sessions.”
“Sometimes you just need a mentor who can talk you through your troubles. Sometimes you need to talk to a family member about being away from home. Find whatever type of support you think you need.”
“Find people who are further along than you are and have found success. Ask them how they did it to save yourself time and jumpstart yourself to whatever goals you have.”
Be able to rebound from setbacks
For perspective, Prof Hudson uses CHEM 121 as an example. “The entrance average for Science is around 92%, and the average for CHEM 121 is usually 69. This means that if the classes are reasonably normally distributed, half of the class gets less than 69.”
Prof Hudson has spoken to students over the years, and understands the feelings of discouragement. “These are students who may have gotten straight As in high school and are having to deal with the grade and the associated feelings of inadequacy.”
Some words of comfort he has: “Society is a lot broader than many students realize. Although there are certain grad schools that will have a hard time considering you if you don’t have the grades you want, there are lots of paths to success.”
For example Prof Hudson knows “a number of people that had low GPAs in their undergrad who are now wildly successful in their careers.” These individuals had “followed the right opportunities, innovated at the right time, made the right connection, or had the right idea—and now they’re doing fine.”
And finally, a more light-hearted message
“Your primary job in your first year is just to survey the landscape, keep your head above water, make some friends, and just do your best. Figure out what you like, stay on top of your mental health and social well-being.”
You can catch Prof Hudson writing out lecture notes on the blackboard, hard at work in his lab, or on a hike with his golden retriever Wesley (“He will likely make an appearance several times in my first-year class next year”), and even on Reddit, which, to him, is “a cool way to interact with the broader part of the UBC community.”