Abigail Clapperton chose to study chemistry for the same reason many pursue the arts – it was an opportunity to be creative.
“You take a concept that might’ve been studied before by someone else, then you say, ‘Can I change this in any way to see if it does something different?’” she says. “Chemistry is beautiful, it’s about asking questions whose answers are unknown and challenging what is currently possible.”
Clapperton is graduating from U of T Scarborough this summer with a double major in biochemistry and human biology – and with double awards. She’s this year’s recipient of the Governor General’s Silver Medal, awarded to the undergraduate student with the highest academic standing in a bachelor’s program, and U of T’s Rose Sheinin Award, given to an outstanding woman student in science.
“I was pretty surprised, then I felt very honored,” she says. “To be recognized as a top woman in science, that just feels pretty magical. Seeing that really confirmed that the hard work was all worth it.”
Clapperton was in a lab when she found out about both awards. She recently finished a research thesis focused on designing molecules for their anti-cancer properties, a project she was drawn to in part to honour her grandfather, who died of the disease, and partly because “everyone has a cancer story.”
“I thought it was more interesting to design molecules that have a purpose behind them, that was a big draw for me,” she says. “It’s something I’m passionate about.”
That interest motivated her to become vice-president of Relay for Life UTSC, a group that fundraises for the Canadian Cancer Society. She was also a tutor with the Biology Students’ Association, a mentor with the First Year Experience Program, and eventually became a teaching assistant (TA).
I'm just proud of myself for finishing and doing well, and for doing something that I'm passionate about.
Clapperton says it was at first bizarre to be a TA after the pandemic began, particularly when presenting to a screen of black boxes. Conducting in-person research was similarly strange but had some benefits. Labs are often crowded with people, but she says social distancing regulations allowed for more one-on-one focus with instructors.
She attributes her continuously high grades in the online environment to internal motivation and luck. The lifelong Markham resident has lived at home with her family throughout the pandemic, and she was able to transition back to in-person research when public health restrictions allowed.
“What also helped me was being excited about learning. School and classes for me are about learning more, asking questions and figuring things out. I get really excited about that,” she says. “Even though it was online learning, I still found a way to get excited about it.”
This fall she is joining Team Tran, a group of “molecular architects” that work under Helen Tran at U of T’s St. George campus. She is pursuing a doctorate in chemistry as part of her long-term goal of becoming a professor. Clapperton hopes to develop herself as a researcher and communicator, then help others do the same.
Her advice to women studying in STEM fields is to reflect on priorities in their university careers, whether they be research, academics, a specific subject or networking. It is normal for goals to change, but she advises remaining aware of what they are; being mindful of overarching priorities can prevent doors from closing.
“I think a lot of women feel kind of forced into one path versus another, or that they're closed off from certain opportunities. And I think the important thing is to advocate for yourself and be able to say, ‘This is what I want and I'm going to put in the work needed to achieve it.’”
When she celebrates convocation on June 23, Clapperton says she will be reflecting on her university career and acknowledging how hard she has worked.
“I'm just proud of myself for finishing and doing well, and for doing something that I'm passionate about. This is a big moment for me and I'm proud of myself for seeing it through.”