Matthew studies the supercomplex mixture of dissolved contaminants found in the "tailing ponds" of the Alberta oil sands industry. He works on method development to inform the establishment of responsible regulation of oil sands mining and in-situ operations. Matthew has collaborations with Environment Canada and several start-up companies.


Drs. David D.Y. Chen and John V. Headley
Chimney Corner (Cùil an t-Simileir)
Research Description

The Alberta oil sands industry presents to us significant challenges on all levels of human life. Chemists involved in analyzing the tailing pond waters, generated during bitumen separation, are confronted with intense difficulties, not the least of which is the identification of chemical components dissolved in the tailing pond waters. In collaboration with Environment Canada, I'm involved in developing analytical chemistry methods for analyzing the molecules in oil sands process and bitumen-affected waters from the Athabasca oil sands industry. The supercomplex mixture of contaminants found dissolved in the tailing ponds presents extraordinary challenges to conventional analytical chemistry: How do you analyze and measure levels of potentially millions of similar molecules in a mixture, only some of which may be toxic, in a cost-effective way? How do you identify the source of the mixture in the case of accidental releases?

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

Being a public scholar means serving the good of others through scholarship. Service is what makes scholarship "public scholarship". Scholarship is the means by which we come to know something of reality in a meaningful way. The public scholar is a good citizen, faithful helper and knowledge leader: posing the toughest questions, finding direction amid the fog. It is my greatest privilege to be a Public Scholar at UBC.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

Re-imagining the PhD and working within the established system of doctoral education comprise two crucial poles of a PhD degree. I believe these seemingly opposing poles need to be in equilibrium in order to have a strong and healthy PhD experience: We must inhale and exhale in order to maintain healthy blood pH. As a PhD candidate and Public Scholar in the Department of Chemistry, I am involved in generating new data, knowledge and methodologies for measuring contaminants in water. Upon producing refined knowledge, the task is now to engage in knowledge mobilization to amplify and propagate the impact of my work. Being part of the Public Scholars Initiative at UBC has given me confidence, tools and friendships which help to elevate my work to a new level.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

I envision connecting my PhD with wider careers in the public service: policy, consulting and regulatory work (e.g. environmental, health and transportation of chemicals). I am currently working with a company from Germany authoring chemical safety data sheets according to the European Union's REACH regulation and my oil sands work is in partnership with Environment Canada. My PhD studies are giving me access to knowledge, providing a platform to create more knowledge. My studies enable me to establish relationships with influential people, galvanizing networks of trust that will lead us into the future.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

I have had the opportunity to present my research progress in oral and poster presentations from Ottawa to Honolulu. There, I have met many amazing scientists and scholars and we share a deep concern for communicating our research findings, seeking avenues to increase public exposure and relevance. I have also had conversations with fellow Canadians about unique and virtually unknown environmental health and safety concerns. Many people’s lives are affected by Canada’s oil sands industry in both positive and negative ways. I feel it is my duty to take everything "to heart", commit it "to head" and become part of the solution.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

The environment is a supreme public good because it is our "common home", as Pope Francis called it in his moving environmental encyclical Laudato Si. A key component of establishing responsible regulation of oil sands mining and in-situ operations is access to quality scientific knowledge upon which the regulations are based: Good science allows for strong regulation, which in turn promotes a just care for our common home.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I embarked on my PhD studies because I wanted to deal in the toughest concepts the world has to offer. I believe that I have the capacity to understand and communicate complex ideas, I can efficiently and effectively connect the dots, and so re-define the cutting-edge. Being a key player in steering research, learning highly-specialized skills and impacting public life with this work are things I find a deep sense of pride in.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

UBC has an excellent global reputation in graduate-level chemistry and top-notch research programs. I decided to study at UBC because I wanted to be a part of the work that goes on here and leave my mark. Realizing that I can help make UBC what it could be, I feel the possibilities are endless here.


Good science allows for strong regulation, which in turn promotes a just care for our common home.