An innate curiosity when coupled with unbridled enthusiasm for learning is an almost perfect formula for engaging young minds and future scientists. Dr. Laura Keffer-Wilkes (MSc ’12, PhD ’16) possesses that exact combination of traits plus so much more, including being the recipient of the School of Graduate Studies Medal of Merit at the Spring 2017 Convocation at the University of Lethbridge. As the program coordinator of science outreach program, Destination Exploration, Laura sees the light flick on in many young minds as she helps them unlock the door to discovery in the world of science.
“I’ve always wanted to know how things work and why. I was that kid at the dinner table who was so excited to tell my parents about what I’d learned at school that day. Breaking the new information down, step-by-step, so they could join me in this amazing new discovery.
“During my undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Guelph, I’d taken several classes which really triggered my interest in molecular biology. After graduation, I started looking into opportunities in that area of research which landed me at the Lethbridge Research Centre. It was about six months into my work there when I decided to look at a master’s program.
“The U of L has an amazing research reputation and I really didn’t want to move again having just packed-up my life all the way from southern Ontario. I was researching professors and labs when I came across Dr. Ute Kothe’s work. I reached out via email to Ute, and she replied even though she was on maternity leave. Once she returned to work, we sat down together and I started in her lab in the spring of 2010.
“Ute has been a big influence for me both professionally and personally. It can be hard to find female role models in the STEM fields, especially those who have the ability to teach and share knowledge so passionately. Working under her guidance was an incredible experience and I try to carry the things I learned from her with me in my own career.
“Science outreach is something that comes quite naturally to me. I got involved on a volunteer basis in my undergrad and have not stopped since. I recognize the enthusiasm and curiosity in kids and love seeing them have their “aha” moment. When an idea or a concept lands in their minds and they fully understand that piece of knowledge, it’s so much fun and so rewarding to see.
“Heinz Fischer, a technician for Arts & Science department, came in to teach one of our Friday afternoon classes to a group of elementary school kids. He had brought with him some broken toasters and coffee makers and taught them how to work through finding faults in the appliances. Simple experiments can be so rewarding for students because they haven’t been shown how to fix something step-by-step, but rather they’ve learned how to solve a problem and investigate why it happened. They loved it.
“The U of L is a great environment to work and learn in, and I am excited to see that evolve with the new science and academic building. We’ll have a facility to match the calibre of our research. Science outreach will be able to run more programming than ever before because we’ll have the space to do it in. It means more kids will get to make discoveries and see just how cool science can be.”