March 27, 2024

UCalgary chemistry undergrad student dives deep into research

Jonah Nelson learns about computational chemistry in Finland and publishes in major chemistry journals
Headshot of a man with short dark hair and glasses
Jonah Nelson Nadine Sander-Green

Like many students who started their journey at the University of Calgary at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jonah Nelson’s first couple of years at school lacked a certain richness, though he didn’t know it at the time. 

Nelson was familiar with high school, and attending university online felt like a similar experience. But after students returned to in-person learning and he realized the true potential the university experience has to offer, things fell into place for the fourth-year chemistry major — in a big way. He has now undertaken a research exchange in Finland, been part of two major published journal articles and has carved out a path for himself in the world of chemistry. 

The initial inspiration

Nelson, who grew up in Calgary, says it was a high school teacher who inspired him down the path of chemistry.

“She was a really amazing instructor, constantly pushing and motivating me to explore everything, even if it wasn’t directly tied to the curriculum,” says Nelson. “In an International Baccalaureate program like I took, it’s all about studying things that are happening around the world now. It’s an inquiry-based learning system where we got the opportunity to do small research projects in our own interests.”

When he started at UCalgary, all of his classes were online due to the pandemic. Nelson felt like he was getting an education but was missing out on what campus life had to offer, like networking, research and getting involved in the community. 

A whole new dimension in person

It wasn’t until his third year of university when his mindset expanded to the potential of what a university experience could offer him.

“In my first two years I treated it a lot like high school, but just a little bit extra. It was my inorganic chemistry professor in my third year, Dr. Roesler, who began to motivate and push me to understand that university is not just a learning experience, it’s also doing, it’s also participating in research, it’s also networking and all of those things,” says Nelson.

Nelson was particularly interested in computational chemistry, a branch of chemistry that uses computer simulations to assist in solving chemical problems without physical experimentation. Because UCalgary has limited resources in this field for undergraduate students, Dr. Roland Roesler, PhD, a professor in chemistry, suggested Jonah travel to the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland for the summer to learn about research with some of the brightest minds in the field. 

He jumped at the opportunity.

A Finnish experience

Although he felt, at first, a bit like a fish out of water, he calls his summer in Finland an “incredible experience.” In fact, it was so successful that UCalgary’s chemistry department is now trying to make the exchange an annual opportunity for students.

“I had never done anything involving computational chemistry, really all my research experience had been pretty superficial,” says Nelson, “so this experience was essentially my first time understanding what research was about.”

Nelson learned many of the ins and outs about performing computational chemistry, from optimizing chemical structures to analyzing the transition state pathways. But he also received something far more valuable: the importance of scientific collaboration.

And the best part?

“The best part was getting to connect with so many different grad students, learn about their research and how I could support it, and what the steps to publications are. There were just so many things that I had never seen before,” he says.

Nelson was even part of a team that published a paper in the Journal of American Chemical Society, and he has another publication coming out in the esteemed Polyhedron journal as well — a rare achievement for an undergraduate student.

“The work that I did was just a small piece of all these people coming together to make it happen. It’s fascinating to see just how many people are involved in actually getting a publication to go through. It’s a massive effort.”

It’s clear Nelson has found his calling in inorganic chemistry. He’s planning on continuing his education with a PhD and then finding a place in academia where he can inspire other young chemists to pursue their passion, just like his high school teacher did.

Nelson would like to thank Dr. Mikko Rautiainen, PhD, and Dr. Heikki Tuononen, PhD, from the University of Jyväskylä and Dr. Roland Roesler, PhD, a chemistry professor at the University of Calgary for providing him with the opportunity to travel overseas on such an unforgettable experience. 

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