When talking with Justin Shmordok, currently pursuing his Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry (PhD) degree, he shared that he might not have discovered his love for research without the help of Waterloo’s co-operative education program during his undergraduate degree. It was during his final co-op work term under an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) with professor Sonny Lee, where his interest was piqued, and it drew him to continue on to graduate studies. 

The research in professor Lee’s group focuses on understanding the fundamental process of biological nitrogen fixation through the lens of an inorganic chemist. Currently, the exact mechanism of biological nitrogen fixation is not known, but current evidence suggests the reactivity occurs on a complex iron-sulfur cluster in the nitrogenase enzymes. As synthetic inorganic chemists, the group (including Shmordok) make analogues to this iron-sulfur cluster to study reactivity and properties in hopes of shedding light on the process.

Shmordok’s interests lie in synthesizing iron-containing complexes that mimic the cofactor structure of the nitrogenase enzymes. His day-to-day operations involve working inside of a glovebox and using Schlenk techniques to create new compounds. These compounds are characterized using a wide array of physical characterizations including X-ray diffraction analysis, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, and cyclic voltammetry.

Justin Shmordok
Justin Shmordok in lab

Justin Shmordok (he/him)
Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry (PhD) student

What drew you to study chemistry at an undergraduate and graduate level at the University of Waterloo? 

A major draw was the location. Coming from Brampton, Ontario, Waterloo Region is smaller in population but has a great community with lots of things to do and events happening. At the graduate level, my supervisor, professor Sonny Lee, along with the Department of Chemistry, is what drew me to stay at Waterloo. The members of the department are amazing and genuinely want to see their students succeed. I have gotten tremendous support, not just from my supervisor, but from other faculty members and staff. 

Speaking of supervisors, what is the working relationship like with your supervisor?

I enjoy working with professor Lee. He finds the right balance between being hands-on and hands-off as I have the freedom to explore my own research interests, but he is always there to discuss my progress and advise me as needed. He wants to see me (and others) succeed and will help us achieve our professional goals. He has provided me with tons of guidance, mentorship, and advice throughout the years, and I don’t think I would have grown as much as a chemist without his supervision.

You recently won the Amit & Meena Chakma Award for Exceptional Teaching by a Student. How did it feel to be recognized?

It felt unreal to receive this award as early as I did in my graduate career. In my undergraduate teaching assistantships, I realized I had a passion for teaching and mentoring students. I really enjoy passing along knowledge, being a mentor and being a part of students’ journey to becoming chemists. As a teaching assistant, I have a duty to not only teach students chemistry but to help them realize that if they put their mind to it, they can succeed!

Why did you found the Guelph-Waterloo Centre for Graduate Work in Chemistry and Biochemistry (GWC^2): Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Indigeneity (EDI-I) Committee? What are the mission/goals of the committee? 

I started the GWC^2 EDI-I committee in spring 2023 with full support from the Department of Chemistry chairs of the University of Waterloo (professor John Corrigan) and the University of Guelph (professor Kathyrn Preuss) and from the director of GWC^2 (professor Richard Manderville). The goal is to organize EDI-I events and discussions to ensure our departments continue to learn, be up-to-date with societal issues and be leaders in creating inclusive and safe spaces.

What is it like being part of the Chemistry Graduate Student Society (CGSS)?

During COVID-19, the CGSS was inactive until a few graduate students (including myself) spearheaded the revival of the society in fall 2022. We recently started to organize events in spring 2023, and it has been a blast.

I really enjoy organizing and participating in these social events as it creates a sense of community amongst the graduate students. We have held a board game social night, a barbecue and kickball tournament, and a charity bake sale. There are plans for lots of future events!