I’m a bit early for my meeting with Cathy Crudden, so when I arrive at her office she’s in the middle of discussing a current research project with one of her students. Crudden invites me in anyway and it’s immediately obvious that working with students is a huge job perk for her. “Students are incredibly fun to work with. Everyone has a different approach and we encourage them to have their own ideas and because of that, they bring so much to the science,” says Crudden, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Queen’s University. The science, in this case, revolves around questions of catalysis — acceleration of chemical reactions — and chirality — structural asymmetries and “mirror images” in different forms of the same molecule. Crudden and her group are involved in developing new reactions to prepare compounds of interest to the pharmaceutical, environment and energy industries. Of particular note is their recent work published in Nature Chemistry, where the Crudden group described a process to allow organic compounds to bind to metal surfaces. They have prepared the most stable self-assembled monolayers on gold reported since the original report of organic-on-metal coatings in 1983. These results are considered game-changing. At only 1/100,000th the width of a human hair, these films have already been shown to reduce corrosion and dramatically improve stability and reproducibility in biosensors. Their potential for wide application is unquestionable. And discoveries like this rely on the close collaboration with her students.
For the last few months, the Crudden group had close to 20 undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on the team, which made for a busy summer. “Our lab is very different from your cookie-cutter, under-graduate lab where the experiments are designed to work,” says Crudden. “In my lab, students get to do things that won’t necessarily work. While that doesn’t sound great, it’s another important approach to exploring chemistry, which at times can be unpredictable. It’s a very challenging, but very fun experience.”
“Perseverance is critical in research. You’ve got to be stubborn. That said, a successful experiment is so rewarding. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.” Furthermore, opportunities for working in Crudden’s lab aren’t limited to Kingston, or even Canada, thanks to her long-standing connection with Nagoya University in central Japan. With no less than four trips to Nagoya per year, a huge part of Crudden’s career is based across the globe where she studied for part of her PhD and returned to for her sabbatical year.
In 2013, Crudden became involved with the creation and development of the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules (ITbM) — a research facility based at Nagoya dedicated to solving scientific problems and making these solutions readily available for researchers all over the world. Projects at the ITbM currently include the development of molecules that control biotic function and production, as well as developing innovative bio-imaging technologies.
“Japan is an incredible country and working with researchers over there brings a totally different perspective and intensity to the table,” says Crudden, who now holds an adjunct faculty position at Nagoya. “Going to Japan as a student was such a great experience for me and it really is a huge pleasure to be able to send students there.” Trainees in Crudden’s lab are encouraged to take research positions at Nagoya, just as students at Nagoya are encouraged to come to Queen’s. In ITbM’s first year of operations, Crudden sent three Queen’s students to the Institute. Two undergraduate Queen’s students conducted research there this past summer. “Having Canadian and Japanese students able to interact and learn from each other is a huge benefit of having this connection with Nagoya,” says Crudden. With only about 14 percent of researchers in Japan being female, the relationship that Crudden has cultivated with Nagoya has also been encouraging for budding female scientists at the university. “Japan is very keen to increase their number of female scientists and many scientists over there will often talk to me about how I, as a female scientist, balance my work and home life,” Crudden says, adding that she’s seeing many more female students and researchers at universities than she did when she was in Japan as a graduate student. As a leader in her research field, Crudden is a role model for women in science and as an acclaimed mentor, clearly has the ability to inspire passion in her students.
However, this goes both ways. At the close of our interview, I notice a number of empty champagne bottles that line the windowsill of her office. I ask her what these mementos represent and she responds that each bottle celebrates the success of one of her students. “When one of my graduate students finishes or a postdoctoral fellow secures a job, we celebrate as a group by cracking open a bottle of bubbly,” Crudden tells me, adding that the bottles are all signed and dated by each student — a reminder of their work and success under her guidance.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of (e)AFFECT, the Queen’s University research magazine.
Photo credit: Bernard Clark