Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto
U of T Chemistry News

Alumni Spotlight: Vivienne Luk

October 17, 2017
by Dan Haves

Vivienne Luk is an assistant professor in the Forensic Science Program at the UTM. Previously, Vivienne worked as a Forensic Toxicologist at the Centre of Forensic Sciences (Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services) where she frequently testified in court as an expert witness on matters such as drinking and driving, homicides and sexual assaults. She graduated from U of T in 2012 with her PhD in Analytical Chemistry.

How did your studies in the Department of Chemistry prepare you for a career in science?

The Department of Chemistry not only provided me with a strong foundation in chemistry and how to properly conduct scientific inquiry, but also the necessary skills to navigate the real world. In my opinion, skills and knowledge only contribute 50 per cent to one’s success. The other 50 per cent is playing well with others. The graduate chemistry program encourages students to collaborate with peers and industry partners, sharing ideas in an open forum via seminars and colloquiums, and supporting educational activities, such as funding for research and conferences. And social clubs like ChemClub really help stitch the social fabrics of student life in the department. These are all examples of activities that mirror the real world. We don’t work in silos. We have to be able to work with others and communicate our ideas to a wide range of audiences.

What was your biggest take away from your time in the department?

Leadership. I had great mentors within the Department of Chemistry that inspired me and guided me towards becoming a true scientist. My PhD committee members - Professors Ulli Krull, Rebecca Jockush and Aaron Wheeler, who was also my supervisor - constantly challenged my understanding and methodologies in a positive and constructive manner. At the conclusion of our meetings, I often walked away with more questions than answers. Although I felt stupid at the time, I now realize that the process of questioning is the true spirit of science and truly a great skill set to have as a scientist. And they were great listeners. They demonstrated enthusiasm in research, they supported my advancement and pursuits and they shared their own personal struggles. They led by example, and I will follow in their footsteps in hopes that I can inspire and guide those in need. That’s the culture in the Department of Chemistry.    

Tell me a little bit about the work you did for the Centre for Forensic Science.

I’m the type of person that needs to be constantly challenged and mentally stimulated. I get bored easily. Pursuing a career in the Forensic Science field was a natural fit for me. As a forensic toxicologist at the Centre of Forensic Science, I was presented with new cases, different drug findings and different analytical challenges every day. Some of my primary responsibilities included writing and reviewing cases, ordering appropriate analysis based on the limited physical evidence available, case conferences with pathologists, coroners, police officers, and other parties pertinent to a case, and testifying in court as an expert witness.

What is it like now to be on the other side of the classroom and lab as an Assistant Professor in the Forensic Science Program at UTM?

I love it! I am an alumna of the forensic science program at UTM as well, so it’s nice to be in a position where I can give incoming students the same wonderful undergraduate experience I had.  Forensic science is defined as the application of the scientific methods and principles that are used in the natural sciences to matters related to the law. Working in this interface provides me with a unique platform that engages students scientifically in a manner that can have a profound impact on society. For example, it’s very rewarding for me to see students understand the impact of what they are learning and how they can apply it to the real-world.

Any words of advice for incoming undergraduate and graduate students to the Department of Chemistry?

One word: resources. There are resources all around you to help you grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek help. As Albert Einstein puts it, “The important thing is to not stop questioning.”