Deacon Profile: Christa Colyer

Christa Colyer is a professor of chemistry and the chair of the chemistry department. She earned a bachelor of science from Trent University in Peterborough, Canada and a masters from the University of Guelph. She received her Ph.D. from Queen’s University in Canada and has taught at Wake Forest since 2004.

What brought you to Wake Forest?

Becky Hack/Old Gold & Black

Becky Hack/Old Gold & Black

I grew up and received all of my education in Canada.

When I was looking for faculty positions, I really knew I wanted to have a research lab and teaching career. A lot of Canadian universities were more like the large, research-intensive state schools here with large classes.

I knew that wasn’t where I wanted to be, so I found my way down here by looking for a model like the one here at Wake Forest.

How do you think the education in the United States differs from the education in Canada?

They definitely have larger classes in Canada, but there really is nothing that resembles the liberal arts. For example, my freshman year, I had only math and science classes.

There was no religion, philosophy or English until my junior year — it just was not part of the curriculum to have that broad training.

How do you think the liberal arts and science interact in the 21st Century?

Especially now, we have many pressing problems, like human health and wellness, energy and the environment, safety and terrorism.

Science needs to interact to  help these problems because they are not just policy problems. They are at the root science based, but science by itself is not sufficient to solve the problems

Many of the ‘big’ challenges facing the world today — global warming, disease, food insecurity, terrorism — have scientific underpinnings or can be at least partially solved through scientific research and development.

However, scientific solutions to these problems cannot be implemented without the interplay of cultural, political, geographical, economic and other forces.

Students educated in the liberal arts will have at their disposal the knowledge and tools to approach scientific problems from the broader perspective needed for change.

Why should students participate in scientific research if they don’t intend to pursue a career in medicine?

I believe undergraduate research allows students to see first-hand how science can be used towards the betterment of the human. In your science classes, you learn the theory and problem-solving skills and hands-on skills that can be applied to particular scientific questions in a controlled environment and with a fixed number of parameters.

Research projects allow you to apply the theory and problem solving and lab skills you have learned to a scientific question. The process of discovery, analysis, interpretation and contextualization can help a student understand the true reach of science beyond the confines of any one profession such as medicine.

What kind of research are you involved in?

Alongside my students, I manage a research lab that focuses on the questions of importance to the field of analytical chemistry.

Analytical chemistry is the ‘measurement’ side of chemistry: identifying and then quantifying the chemical constituents of a complex mixture, for example.

We work on projects that have applications in drug discovery, homeland security, environmental chemistry, materials chemistry, and instrument development.

This wide range of projects keeps things interesting and fresh in the lab, and it allows my students to find a project that is well suited to their own professional and academic goals.

Can studying the liberal arts be beneficial to a career in science?

If a scientist has the greatest breakthrough or discovery of all time, but that discovery is not made known beyond the confines of the scientist’s lab, then the breakthrough won’t benefit anyone.

A liberal arts education helps to prepare a scientist not only to conduct scientific research, but also to share their research results with the scientific community, funding agencies, the government and the general public.

The development of critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills are central to the liberal arts and these same skills are central to the advancement of science.

What do you like the most about teaching here?

I love teaching since it provides me with the opportunity to share my love of chemistry with my students, but at Wake, teaching is all the more rewarding for a number of reasons.

Most importantly I would say that teaching at Wake is special because of the close faculty-student engagement fostered by the ‘collegiate university’ and ‘teacher-scholar’ models.  Small class sizes help me get to know my students better so I can hopefully identify what might be done to help them reach their full potential.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the sciences in the future?

In the immediate future, one of the biggest challenges faced by scientists will be securing the necessary funding to support their research.

Government agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health must be protected from funding cuts even when economic recession may threaten other programs.

In the long term, the sciences face many global challenges that will require greater collaboration and communication between the scientific community and the broader public.

How do you spend your free time?

Well, I honestly don’t have a lot of free time, but when I do I spend it with my family and I love to travel.