CSD Educators: Canadian Chemical Crystallography Workshop

In this addition to our CSD Educators series, we hear from Dr Louise Dawe, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Louise is a collaborator and champion of the CSD—helping to develop some of our classroom modules. Here, she outlines current examples of collaborative crystallography workshops and schools in the Americas that can help educators plan future structural science events. It is based on a lecture presented by the author at the 2020 IUCr Congress and General Assembly.

Canadian Chemical Crystallography Workshop

My name is Louise Dawe, and I am an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. I am also the vice-chair of Canada’s National Committee for Crystallography and an active member of the American Crystallographic Association.

Through these organizations, I have had the opportunities to work with excellent colleagues who have organized past American Crystallographic Association Summer Schools and Canadian National Committee for Crystallography Workshops, and to work with scientists at the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre (CCDC)who are tireless supporters of structure education and outreachand organizers of schools and workshops throughout the Americas and the wider international community.

Crystallography education in North America

I would like to start with some North American context for crystallography education. In the United States, the American Chemical Society provides guidelines for chemistry program accreditation. The minimum requirements include access to a nuclear magnetic resonance instrument, as well as access to four other methods of characterization out of mass spectrometry, optical molecular or atomic spectroscopy, chromatography, and electrochemistry.

Crystallography is only recommended as part of the inorganic and organic chemistry requirements, and, even then, it is inferred from the requirement for students to perform purifications (recrystallization) and to learn about methods for sample characterization.

In Canada, it is the Canadian Society for Chemistry that accredits programs, and their guidelines are less prescriptive than those in the US. Minimum requirements in Canada include access to instrument facilities supported by the university and that a minimum number of lab hours be fulfilled. There is significant flexibility in meeting requirements, and Canadian Society for Chemistry committees evaluate the laboratory training components of programs with unique scrutiny to the individual learning environment and with site visits taking place no less than every eight years. In fact, the Canadian Society for Chemistry accreditation guidelines state that they “shall neither prescribe a detailed curriculum beyond the minimum requirements detailed below (and highlighted on the previous slide) nor require uniformity among programs.”

In practice, most Canadian university chemistry programs have very similar core requirements (making it relatively straightforward to transfer between schools early in an undergraduate degree.) But where most people may see a common curriculum, I have always seen opportunities to teach undergraduates about crystallography, and I had the opportunity to co-author a paper on Crystallographic Education in the 21st Century after the 2014 International Union for Crystallography Congress and General Assembly. 

While I may see opportunities to teach crystallography everywhere, logistics can often temper these visions because resources to develop high-impact skills can be limited by facility access, expert availability, and the budgetary requirement to meet a critical mass of participants before it becomes practical to offer instruction. And so, while it may not be practical to offer regular advanced crystallographic instruction at all institutions, one way to address these obstacles is with targeted local workshops that attract national and/or international attendees.

While on the surface, similarly themed workshops may appear alike (for example, see the IUCr sponsored meetings and workshops in the IUCr Calendar Sub-Committee annual reports), they often differ dramatically in the diversity of experiences that attendees have, logistical aspects of organizing and teaching in these ventures, and outcomes and applied practice of attendees.

Small-molecule chemical crystallography by the Canadian National Committee for Crystallography 

Internationally, there are many regional schools (but open to the wider community.) I will be limiting my discussion to small-molecule chemical crystallography opportunities by the Canadian National Committee for Crystallography (CNCC).

Between 2009 and 2019 the Canadian Chemical Crystallography Workshop (CCCW), which is an initiative of the CNCC, ran as an in-person event during the four days that immediately preceded our annual Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition. The location was a university in the same city as this conference, with the rationale that students have limited travel budgets. So, they could add this workshop to our annual national conference for minimal additional expense. (In other words, it did not involve a separate trip and accommodations to a Canadian different location.) For that reason, we also try to run a compressed schedule, limited to four days.

Each year we have between 15 to 25 attendees, with half normally from the host institution and local surrounding area and the rest from across Canada or international locations. The number of instructors varies, with approximately five core faculty who return each year and another five to seven from local institutions or who are in the area for the national conference and willing to donate their time.

I have been teaching at this school since 2016 and took over the organization after the 2018 meeting. I did so with the understanding that four days is insufficient to turn novices into crystallographers, but that after this workshop, all participants should feel empowered to critically engage with small molecule X-ray data.

I’ve included a few tweets from past attendees, who have publicly stated that these workshops have helped them develop the skills required to succeed in their graduate programs and that due to limited facility availability, that without this workshop, some participants would never have had the opportunity to learn about X-ray diffraction.

And so, this brings me to the pandemic and the resulting instructional pivot. When our institutions closed their doors to in-person learning in March 2020, there were only two months until the start of CCCW2020. Half of all registrations had already been confirmed for the workshop, which was scheduled to take place in Winnipeg.

Instead, we embarked on a new adventure in the form of a fully synchronous online workshop, hosted by me, using my institutional Zoom license. Whereas in-person, schedules are often flexible, and working lunches and dinners never felt like work, I re-envisaged our curriculum to focus on essential learnings, with supplementary material linked in our program to accompany all lectures. All instructors were available for office hours for the first hour each day, and these were facilitated using break-out rooms for one-on-one instruction, with students normally sharing their screens so that our experts could coach students through problems.

In 2020, we had 24 students and 11 instructors from across Canada and the United States. This was exciting, but also problematic since there was 5000 km between our easternmost instructor in Newfoundland and our westernmost instructor in British Columbia. So, the daily start and end times felt like a compromise by everyone.

I will also mention that on the first day of the workshop, when a “Welcome” was posted on the Canadian National Committee for Crystallography’s social media, I received several requests from people who were not registered to access recordings of the lectures. This was not possible, as we did not have permission to capture identifying information from our participants, and we did not have access (that is, budget) to webinar software that would obviate this problem.

Unfortunately, after more than a year of the pandemic, our 2021 workshop was also remote. This year, 19 students attended, from Canada, the US, and as far away as the UK and Chile. Despite our disappointment at still making instructional accommodations due to the pandemic, this format has meant that many students who would not have been able to participate otherwise due to location and/or limited budget, were able to join us this year.

After the 2020 remote workshop, an anonymous survey was conducted, with 24 respondents (including seven instructors and 17 trainees) reporting over 90% that the quality of the instructors, background information, depth of content, use of OLEX2, and furthering of knowledge in this area was “Good,” “Very Good,” or “Excellent.”

The survey included opportunities to provide free-form feedback and common themes emerged, including an appreciation for one-on-one learning opportunities with instructors and the enthusiasm exhibited by both participants and instructors. Participants also provided some practical suggestions for virtual implementation of this format, including methods to implement “homework,” to slow down tutorials by coaching instead of demonstrating, and the recommendation that organizers suggest participants have access to two monitors. All of these recommendations were implemented in 2021.

CCDC and the Canadian Chemical Crystallography Workshop 

The CCDC has been an enthusiastic supporter of CCCW for many years, with their expert scientists regularly joining our instructional team. Temporary workshop licenses are arranged for participants, with two workshop sessions devoted to learning about the power of crystallographic databases and a practical introduction to how to access database information for research purposes. The timing of CCCW, immediately preceding our national chemistry workshop, means that multiple times CCCW participants have been able to incorporate new structural results into their talks based on their workshop knowledge. I have observed CCCW trainees engage in extensive searches using ConQuest but limited to the MOF subset. Learning about these powerful tools has had an obvious impact on trainee knowledge and communication.

For me, the 2020 and 2021 Canadian Chemical Crystallography Workshops have demonstrated how our local efforts can build an international community and can bring us together during times when we feel isolated.

Learn more

CCDC thanks Louise for her contribution to our blog series. Click the links below to download her educational modules that contain hands-on exercises for the classroom and to view additional collaborative teaching modules.

Classroom Teaching Module: Structure Exploration

Classroom Teaching Module: Crystallization

View all our teaching modules.