Joseph Zsombor-Pindera

UBC graduate student Joseph Zsombor-Pindera
Exploring the electronic structure and reactivity of transition metal complexes of redox non-innocent ligands through spectroscopy and computational chemistry
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I love chemistry. Not only is chemistry practically a very fun discipline, with its intricate glassware and bright colours, but it is also a very useful science. What I find especially compelling about chemistry, though, is the beauty of the theories we use to represent it. I love thinking about the relationship between symmetry and electronic structure, the way a molecule's geometry can change how it interacts with light, sometimes even in ways that we can see with our eyes in the lab. Grad school gives me an opportunity to study phenomena that I see as beautiful without knowing exactly what I'll find. I live next to a beautiful garden where I can sit and read all the books I've ever wanted to read, I get to wake up every morning and spend my day working in a lab thinking about questions on the edge of the discipline, and in order to answer these questions, I get to use some of the most advanced, subtle equipment in the world. This is not the sort of experience that would commonly be available in an R&D lab. Grad school is a unique opportunity to spend some time studying exactly what you want, in exactly the depth you want to study it.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

UBC is a Mecca for inorganic chemistry. A lot of other big-name schools focus more on the other sub-disciplines, but here there is practically a whole building worth of labs focused on it. I think people here recognize the crucial role that inorganic chemistry will play in making the chemical industry green. Given the department's focus, working here means that I'm surrounded by world-experts, so I get to be constantly learning from people much more knowledgable than myself. I also just love BC. With the mountains, the ocean, the forests, and the islands, there is really nowhere else quite like BC.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

When I first visited UBC, I saw that the labs were really busy. I got the impression that people were really getting work done here, and when I met my supervisor, I felt that he and I shared a similar way of looking at chemistry and that we were interested in the same sorts of problems. The other thing I really like about our lab is that we approach chemical problems using both theoretical and experimental methods. I feel that it's in the interplay between the two that real progress in scientific understanding is made, and my supervisor's lab is one of few I've encountered that combines both approaches fairly equally. My program also offers great opportunities to travel for research. I believe that international collaboration in science is crucial, so it is important to get experience working in other countries and learning from researchers across the world.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

I think the best surprise was the Cherry blossoms on campus in the springtime, not to mention how early the spring comes. Besides that, I was also surprised by how late the sun sets in the summertime. Before moving here, I hadn't realized how far north Vancouver is compared to other cities in Eastern Canada. Vancouver's latitude is actually 49.28˚! That's almost 4˚ north of Montreal.

When I first visited UBC, I saw that the labs were really busy. I got the impression that people were really getting work done here, and when I met my supervisor, I felt that he and I shared a similar way of looking at chemistry.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

I'm very excited about my upcoming trip to the MPI für chemische Energiekonversion in Germany. I'm going to be learning new methods of theoretical prediction of chemical spectra and working on collaborative research projects. I'm hoping that I'll be able to bring some of the skills I'll learn during my exchange back to my lab here at UBC and use them to analyze the results of some of the experiments we do here.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

Our lab does fundamental chemistry research, but I think it's important to take the insights we learn at the fundamental level and figure out how to apply them to useful products that can improve the world. For example, protecting the environment from further damage due to the chemical industry is very important to me, and I want to make a contribution to green chemistry. I think transferring the fundamental knowledge I am learning to more complex systems that can be applied in areas like green chemistry will be an important challenge for me.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

Because applied research deals with complex systems that can require several brains worth of expertise to nail down, the first thing that often needs to happen when research moves from fundamental to applied is collaboration. I think my degree will prepare me well for this aspect of research because UBC is a very open, collaborative place to work, and because my supervisor's lab, in particular, is positioned in a very interdisciplinary area of chemistry.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

My undergraduate internships were extremely important. At Concordia University, I was part of the Science College, which is an interdisciplinary undergraduate program that has students take additional courses in alternate scientific disciplines, philosophy, and history of science, and do three practical research projects. As part of this program, I worked in two labs at Concordia and a third lab in Hungary, which was my first experience doing science abroad. Not only did my experience in these labs provide me with useful scientific skills, but it also showed me what research was about more generally. It gave me a better understanding of what sorts of questions scientists are interested in and how they go about answering them. Doing research during your BSc can also be useful to get experience doing research in other fields so that you have a better idea of how research in different sub-disciplines compares.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

I am interested in a lot of different things. I actually began my post-secondary education studying art in CEGEP before I decided to switch into science, and I've maintained my interest in visual art, as well as music. I like to draw, and I play jazz piano. At Concordia, I spent a lot of time practicing on the medium grand at Loyola Chapel, and now, here at UBC, I am a resident of Green College at UBC, where we also have a grand piano, so I spend some time playing here as well. I try to get a lot of exercise, and I've been enjoying skate skiing at the top of Cypress during the winter and climbing Grouse Mountain during the summer.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Make friends, ask a lot of questions, and always remember that experiments usually fail. You have to try things a heck of a lot of times before you can draw your conclusions, so if something doesn't work, try it again, and if it still doesn't work, try to figure out why it doesn't work, and then tweak that variable systematically, and you may end up discovering something interesting in the process. Also, unexpected results are not bad. Beyond that, I think it's really important when you first arrive at a lab to get really good at one particular skill, that way, even if you spend most of your time learning from others at the beginning, you will always have your personal "superpower" to contribute to the lab.


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