Dr. Zachary Hudson’s final lecture in 2019’s winter session started off as it always does, with Hudson flipping through slides and telling funny anecdotes about chemistry’s impact on the world.
Every term on the last day of class, Hudson, an assistant professor and Canada research chair in sustainable chemistry at UBC, delivers a lecture outlining careers in science that don’t follow the medical school route. Like other professors teaching first-year chemistry, he aims to highlight the lucrative and fulfilling paths students can pursue through careers in chemical science.
But in 2019, by the time the lecture had come to an end, Hudson noticed that the classroom’s atmosphere felt different.
Term one of 2019 was the same term that Greta Thunberg’s school strike for climate arrived at UBC’s doorstep. In September, the UBC community had filled the plaza between the Alumni Centre and the UBC Bookstore, chanting in favour of the likes of divestment, a Canadian Green New Deal and Indigenous sovereignty before joining over 100,000 climate strikers in downtown Vancouver.
In his own class, Hudson had observed a tangible atmospheric shift in response to the climate crisis. He noticed that the same youth being photographed at the protests, the same youth who heard daily of our planet hurtling towards ecological catastrophe, were the ones sitting in front of him during his lectures. And their climate anxiety was growing.
“Climate taking centre stage as a result of those protests brought a visibility to it that made the issue no longer a background source of anxiety,” said Hudson.
“This is a foreground source of anxiety.”
This term, Hudson tailored his final lecture in response to this unease. Just over 30 minutes in run time and simply titled “Can Chemistry Change the World?” the talk has already amassed hundreds of upvotes on Reddit and has resonated with individuals across the UBC community.
“Dr. Hudson’s … lecture single handedly gave me a will to live and a reason to pursue science,” wrote Reddit user davinkyhehe on an initial post about the lecture.
“... I just showed [Hudson’s] presentation to my parents and they were [astounded],” wrote another user Ubcstudentmaya. “They said they have full trust in [him], as well as UBC, for my education and collectively our futures.”
“Really what I was trying to motivate was interest in careers in science and innovation,” said Hudson. “I think I did that.”
Hudson’s lecture begins with a grounding tinge of humour as it describes the impact of chemist Thomas Midgley Jr, who developed both tetraethyl lead, an antiknock agent in gasoline that led to an increase of lead poisoning, and Freon, the first commercial chlorofluorocarbon — or non-flammable chemical used in refrigerants — that burned a hole in the ozone layer the size of Antarctica.
The story then winds through some of the current threats to the planet imposed by the climate crisis, before highlighting the ways that chemistry, he argues, is at the heart of building a more sustainable world. The lecture ends with an impactful tale that highlights the value society places on the work of scientists, and Hudson urges students to consider the impact they can make as science practitioners at UBC.
“Lectures in sciences are very often presented as a series of facts and then a series of examples, and then you practice the techniques you learn from the facts and saw in the examples — and then you do another lecture,” said Hudson.
“But you don’t actually have to teach that way. You can teach in a way that constructs, or that builds or exploits emotions in the same way that a good storyteller would when you’re reading a poem or reading a story.”
The result of this story is a heartfelt lecture that leaves the viewer with an understanding of the severity of the problems caused by the climate crisis. But alongside this urgency, a resolve emerges as to how science students at UBC — one of the top-rated universities on the planet for sustainability initiatives — are uniquely positioned to tackle these challenges head on.
“I was trying to … motivate a renewed sense of hopefulness that a better future is possible,” said Hudson. “… That all is not lost for the future of the human race. We actually have a way out of this as a result of innovation in the chemical sciences and others.”
Bringing the lesson home
With heightened levels of stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, hearing a message that makes the listener just feel good could have contributed to why this lecture has resonated with so many members of the UBC community since it was first delivered.
However, Hudson is not alone in his efforts to inspire the UBC community in the face of the climate crisis. The first-year chemistry teaching team currently consists of eight lecturers, who all present lectures to generate student interest in pursuing careers in chemistry.
“What was different this year was that of the eight lecturers, I was the only one whose lectures were recorded,” said Hudson with a laugh.
For undergraduate students who were motivated by his lecture, Hudson recommended getting hands-on experience in as many avenues of research as possible before they graduate.
“Undergrad is an absolutely fantastic opportunity to involve yourself in many different aspects of a broad research field for a short period of time,” he said. “... My advice is actually just to try lots of different things and see where your passion lies and see where your aptitude lies, because that’s an advantage that undergraduate students have over graduate students.”
Perhaps one of the more captivating elements of the lecture is that it does not shy away from the reality younger generations face with regards to the climate crisis in an effort to achieve its feel good ending. In BC alone, the successful development of the LNG Canada project in 2025 would blow any emissions targets set by the province entirely out of reach.
But, Hudson reiterated, this is not a cause to stop fighting for.
“The way I think about this mentally is I have a few jobs or a few ways that I can help,” said Hudson. “… Perhaps most [importantly] is I might be able to convince other people to apply their skills to that problem.
“So even if the problem actually does stress me out as much as it does stress out any of my students, that doesn’t mean it’s not important to try.”