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Chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

With rapidly expanding graduate studies and well supported diverse undergraduate programs, Memorial University offers exciting opportunities in pure and applied chemistry relevant to the needs of Atlantic Canada

Memorial University is the largest university in Atlantic Canada, with an enrolment of 14,000 full-time undergraduates and 1300 graduate students. It was founded as a living memorial to those who fell in the two World Wars, and now includes Faculties of Arts, Science, Medicine, Engineering and Education, as well as a number of schools and research institutes. The University is located in one of the most historic and scenic regions of Canada with its main campus in St. John's and Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook. Both campuses offer access to spectacular coastline, picturesque villages, and unique marine and forest wild life, just a few kilometres from the modern cities in which they are located.

As the only university in Newfoundland, Memorial plays a major role in shaping the cultural and economic development of the province. In the 1970s, this involved the education of a rapidly growing enrolment from rural outports. In the 1990s, the advent of oil and gas development, massive mineral finds in Labrador, and the devastating collapse of the northern cod fishery provide fertile ground for new initiatives in teaching and research.

The Department of Chemistry has been shaped by the changing mandate of the University. The Department grew quickly in the 1970s to provide faculty for teaching a very large number of small classes for first-year students. By the mid 1980s, the Department had grown to its present level of 29 faculty and 30 support staff on the St. John's campus and a total of 15 faculty and staff at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. The emphasis at that time was necessarily on providing high quality BSc programs in the chemical sciences and on first year teaching, with only a modest program of graduate studies. The past ten years have seen a substantial increase in the graduate program, a steady growth in basic research, and new initiatives in areas related to the economic development of the province.

Undergraduate studies

First-year enrolments reached a peak in 1985 as a result of a very large number of students taking remedial chemistry courses at the time Grade XII was introduced into the province, then rose again to the current level of 3800 which is expected to decline in the late 1990s. The Department offers Canadian Society for Chemistry accredited Honours and Major BSc programs in chemistry, and joint Honours degrees with biochemistry, earth science, physics and mathematics at the St. John's campus. Sir Wilfred Grenfell College offers the first and second year chemistry courses and a new four-year Bachelor of Environmental Science Program. The College has been a leader in the development of chemistry curricula for small undergraduate colleges, and in the use of micro-scale laboratories at the first and second year levels.

Graduate studies

From only four students in 1984 the chemistry graduate program has grown to 44 MSc and PhD students in the 1995-1996 academic year. Our current enrolment includes Canadians from Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta, and foreign students from Britain, China, India, Jordan, Nigeria and Mauritius. Twelve of the 29 faculty at the St. John's campus and two cross-appointed faculty are currently supervising graduate students in physical, analytical, organic and inorganic chemistry. A new MSc program in Environmental Science began in 1995.

Funding for graduate student research is provided through teaching assistantships, Memorial University graduate fellowships, and NSERC research grants. Although the Department has traditionally been most active in basic research, there is increased emphasis on expanding the program through industrial funding. At the present time our industrial support includes grants for mission-oriented basic research from the Canadian Electrical Association, DuPont, FMC Corporation, Merck, Ontario Hydro, Seabright, and Xerox. Work in environmental and marine aquatic chemistry is supported by Newfoundland Hydro, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Forestry Canada.


A full range of modern equipment includes 300MHz and 100MHz NMR spectrometers; a high resolution mass spectrometer; a single crystal X-ray diffractometer; an ESR spectrometer; a variable temperature superconducting Faraday magnetometer; FTIR, UV/VIS/NIR, microwave and Raman spectrometers; electrochemical equipment for cyclic voltammetry and AC impedance studies; two GC-MS and three HPLC chromatographs; heat capacity and heat of mixing microcalorimeters, and other precision thermochemical equipment.

The University provides access to the campus VAX network, machine shop, electronic shop and glassblowing services, an on-site personal computer service and repair group and a large library, all located in the Chemistry/Physics Building or close by. Access to facilities for applied research such as SEM and TEM microscopes, ICP-MS, stable-isotope mass spectrometers, X-ray fluorescence spectrometers, a powder X-ray diffractometer, and other major installations is available in other Departments linked to chemistry by overhead walkways.

Aquatic and environmental chemistry

There is a growing emphasis on environmental and marine chemistry at Memorial, with three active research groups. The speciation of trace metals is a critical factor in determining bioavailability, and electrochemical techniques for the determination of speciation at very low levels are being developed. Collaborative work with geochemists and biologists makes use of ICP-AES and ICP-MS to examine sources of trace metals in seawater that include sediments, terrestrial run-off, aeolian deposition and offshore structures. Research on aqueous organics is aimed at identifying the molecular composition, source and fate of biogenic and anthropgenic compounds found in seawater as dissolved, colloidal or suspended matter. Instrumental techniques include pyrolysis in conjunction with MS and GC-MS and high resolution chromatography.

The marine/environmental group are major participants in a multidisciplinary study on the sustainability in a changing cold ocean coastal environment which is funded by a $1.4M grant from the Tri-Council Eco-Research secretariat. The 33 members of the team are drawn from a full range of disciplines including history, sociology, health sciences, biology and earth sciences as well as chemistry.

Inorganic chemistry

Diversity is the watchword for inorganic research at Memorial. With five research-active faculty members, the Inorganic Division is among the largest and best equipped in eastern Canada. Pure and applied research projects involving both transition metal and main group element chemistry are underway in four research groups in St. John's and one in Corner Brook. Magnetostructural studies of localized and extended magnetic interactions are being used to reveal how electronic effects are transmitted in polynuclear Cu(II) coordination complexes, which may ultimately have use in the design of molecular electronic devices and models for biological catalysts. Other groups focus on applications of chiral transition-metal organometallics and coordination complexes in metal mediated stereospecific synthesis of asymmetric carbon and main group element compounds.

Bridges to applied inorganic chemistry include applications of transition metal complexes of organosulfur compounds as liquid crystals and of inherently chiral calixarenes as shape-selective molecular sensors. New synthetic methods are being explored for the synthesis of unusual [Pi]-bonded pnictogen and chalcogen compounds which may yield novel polymers and pharmaceuticals. Memorial inorganic chemists make extensive use of the in-house spectroscopic, X-ray and magnetochemical facilities, and have wide ranging contacts with groups in Europe, Japan, Australia and North America.

Organic chemistry

Organic chemists at Memorial are involved in projects that range from the study of reaction mechanisms to the development of new synthetic strategies and their application to the stereoselective syntheses of complex molecules of biological, medicinal and theoretical importance. Target molecules for synthesis include azepines; nucleoside analogues; natural products such as polycyclic terpenes and fredericamycin; novel calixnaphthalenes; steroids; non-planar polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; cyclophane-based molecular devices and fullerene fragments. Other work is directed towards elucidation of the mechanisms by which electronic factors govern the regio- and stereochemical outcome of the Diels-Alder reaction; the syntheses of new electron-deficient dienes and their participation in inverse-electron demand Diels-Alder reactions; and the mechanisms of reactions involving radical cations and intramolecular Michael additions. Currently, there are sixteen graduate students conducting their research on these projects.

Applied research projects now being conducted in collaboration with major industrial partners are aimed at the development of new compounds with anti-viral and anti-HIV activity, and the synthesis of novel photochromic compounds for use in the electronics and printing industries.

Solution and interfacial chemistry

Calorimetry, densimetry, Raman spectroscopy and pressure vessel techniques are used to examine the properties of aqueous electrolytes, non-electrolytes and chelating agents over a wide range of temperatures and pressures, and the effects of near-critical behaviour on partial molar properties. Related applied research projects are aimed at understanding and modelling the interactions of anions with metal oxides and minerals in nuclear and thermal steam generators, speciation in acid-gas treatment processes, and mineral mass transport in hydrothermal environments.

Research on interfacial chemistry is focused on the use of accurate vapour-pressure techniques to study the interfacial behaviour of near-critical fluids in micropores, and the use of a.c. impedance techniques to study charge transport processes in conducting polymers, relevant to applications in batteries and supercapacitors. Applied research on the development of advanced fuel-cell electrodes containing catalysts supported on conducting polymer particles is carried out in collaboration with Ballard Power Systems.

Theoretical chemistry and spectroscopy

Basic research in vibrational spectroscopy emphasizes the use of Raman spectroscopy to study speciation in molten salts and aqueous solutions, and to determine the lattice dynamics of ionic and non-ionic crystals. Microwave techniques are used to determine the geometries, force fields, electric dipole moments and nuclear quadrupole coupling constants of simple molecules in the gas phase.

Theoretical research in the Department is aimed at the development of "intelligent", object-oriented computational techniques for high level calculations, large systems and parallel algorithms. Wide-ranging collaborative projects with experimentalists are addressing problems related to facial-selectivity in the Diels-Alder reaction, the design of conducting organic polymers, and the prediction of transition-state structures from experimental kinetic isotope effects.

Biochemistry and geochemistry

A wide variety of biochemical research programs are carried out in the Department of Biochemistry, the School of Pharmacy and the Faculty of Medicine. The Earth Science Department is well equipped with analytical instrumentation to support geochemical and environmental research, and a number of cross appointed faculty conduct collaborative research and teaching in these areas.

New directions

Canadian universities are facing unprecedented challenges in the years ahead. Memorial University's strategic planning calls for the development of areas of focus in chemistry, built around our current strengths in basic research, an increased emphasis on aqueous and aquatic chemistry to enhance Memorial's position as a centre for ocean sciences and near-coastal research, and applied research in areas of chemistry related to the new areas of industrial activity in Newfoundland. With a strong tradition of excellence in undergraduate teaching and a vibrant and expanding graduate school, the chemistry programs at Memorial are well-positioned to contribute to the needs of Atlantic Canada.

For more information on the Chemistry programs at Memorial, please contact:

Department of Chemistry Memorial University of Newfoundland St. John's, NF A1B 3X7

Tel: 709-737-8772 Fax: 709-737-6702

Peter Tremaine, MCIC, is Professor and Head of the Department of Chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NF. He is currently Chair of the Canadian Council of University Chemistry Chairs and a member of the CSC Board of Directors. The Chemistry Department at Memorial hosts the 79th Canadian Society for Chemistry Conference and Exhibition from June 23-26, 1996.
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Author:Tremaine, Peter
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:May 1, 1996
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