When Adam Hitchcock, a professor of chemistry at McMaster University, came last week to McGill for a lecture on x-ray scanning, he spoke with gravitas. Hitchcock is a Canada Research Chair in Materials Research and has published – along with his research group at McMaster – a large number of peer-reviewed articles on x-ray scanning and microbiology. Nobody in the room could doubt his expertise.
Alex May, on the other hand, is a U2 Student in Physics and Mathematics. Although May doesn’t have a research chair, last summer he organized a series of student-run lectures in physics, computer science, and math. What he lacks in years of studying, he makes up for in enthusiasm.
“I asked friends for advice, and I just decided that anybody who’d like to talk would get to speak,” May told The Daily. “And often in the cases where I thought that it wouldn’t be that great of a talk, I was surprised. It [was] very open-form.”
What began as a shoestring operation with sparsely attended talks – the very first lecture saw a turnout of six people in the physics student lounge – eventually grew into a popular phenomenon among science students.
“We’d have up to thirty people…if it was more accessible to a general audience,” May said. “There was one on exo-planet research, and it was very popular.”
For May, the fact that undergraduates hosted most of these lectures wasn’t a problem.
“Undergraduates certainly can do interesting research,” he said. “Even if they don’t come up with new results, they can still be very satisfying.”
His research on quantum information and how it moves around space-time was the subject of his own talk.
“Professors might talk about these subjects for a second, but you’re not going to get a lot of depth,” he said. “So [these talks] expose you to things that aren’t in your comfort zone.”
But these conferences aren’t a substitute for class.
“They’re a good way to find out about new things and get a sense about what’s going on,” he explained. “If you should happen to come across something you find particularly interesting, you should find out about it more in-depth in other ways.”
The project will continue without May. No talks are scheduled for the Winter semester, since the Society of Physics Students is hosting its own lecture series.
The initiative will be continued by one of his colleagues throughout next summer.