For recent graduate Cynthia Cheung, doing research is a leg up for her career
by Sharon Oosthoek

Cynthia Cheung was just a couple months into her undergraduate chemistry research project when she made a significant discovery. Too early for results, her insight was instead about the quality of learning that comes from working with uncertainty.

“When you’re dealing with research, as opposed to class work, you have to become very comfortable with not knowing,” says Cheung. “It’s an unsettling feeling. You don’t know the results. Your experiment may not even give you results, and you have to figure out why, and how to make it work.”

Cheung, who graduated in June with a BSc with distinction, works in Professor Jennifer Murphy’s chemistry lab, studying how nitrogen moves through soil and into the water table. 

Agricultural fertilizer is a major source of added soil nitrogen. Not all nitrogen is taken up by plants and bacteria, and the remainder can make its way into the water table. If too much enters our drinking water, it can have serious health consequences. 

Excess nitrogen in our blood reduces its ability to carry oxygen, leading to a potentially fatal condition in babies called “blue baby syndrome.”

Cheung, however, is studying how naturally-occurring nitrogen in unfertilized soil makes its way into the water table. She wants to create a baseline against which we can measure the effect of fertilizer so we can make more informed choices about its application.

She is working with a small plot of soil at U of T’s Koffler Scientific Reserve north of Toronto. Last fall, she dug several narrow holes to a depth of 10, 50 and 100 cm. At each interval, she inserted a tube to deposit a button-sized chunk of plastic, to which nitrogen clings. 

In this way, Cheung is developing a snapshot of how much nitrogen is normally taken up by plants and soil bacteria, and how much persists as it sinks toward the water table. She hopes to have results by summer’s end. 

Cheung would like to eventually return to her native Calgary to do oil patch remediation and feels working with a top-level researcher such as Murphy will give her a leg up.

“Undergraduates here often say you are just a number, but if you’re given the chance to work with a professor, it can be a thrilling learning experience,” she says.

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