UNDER THE MICROSCOPE | Jae Levy, virtual reality educational software

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Jae Levy, a third-year organic chemistry student, is researching virtual reality as a teaching tool.

Their goal is simple: make chemistry easier to learn by enabling people to see the reactions happen in real time. 

“Chemistry has always been for people … who have an image of exactly what’s happening in their heads, and I think that limits the field,” said Levy. “You could be the smartest person in the world but if you can’t hold that image in your head you’re always going to be learning it by rote and not by actually understanding the concept.”

After receiving an NSERC undergraduate research award, Levy taught themselves computer programming to build software that would teach people how to do basic organic chemistry reactions in a virtual reality-based visualizer.

Levy then reached out to David Glowacki at the University of Bristol to organize spending a summer in the U.K. working in a high performance virtual reality chemistry lab. While they were there, Levy helped to develop software that allows the user to produce and bond atoms to simulate a number of different chemical reactions.

Now that they’re back in Victoria, Levy is continuing to collaborate with the Bristol lab to test the efficacy of different VR software programs in different countries as chemistry-based teaching tools.

The Martlet: How is VR important in chemistry?

Levy: The big issue with chemistry is that it’s a very visual, three-dimensionally visual concept. To understand how a reaction works, you need to understand how multiple things that are moving. With chemistry, [VR] as a teaching tool is going to be really critical. I think there’s no better way to simulate … complex stuff.

What got you interested in this kind of research in the first place?

I’ve always liked the programming side of things. [With] VR, I saw the potential of [a teaching tool]. When I was building the software for teaching organic chemistry, by the end of it I knew more about organic chemistry simply by the fact that all of a sudden things clicked for me. I think it’s the fact that it makes something I really love really accessible to anybody.

Would you want to continue pursuing this in grad school?

I don’t know if I’d do it for grad school, I’ll probably just do it for my undergrad. I have no idea what I’m doing after I graduate. I take [this research] very seriously, but it’s just something that I find cool that I want to try out. I actually really love this, and it’s something I really care about, but I’m open to whatever happens with my degree.

What’s your favourite thing about this kind of work?

Because no one else is doing it, it allows me to do whatever I want. When I work in someone else’s lab on someone else’s project, they tell you what they want and you don’t make decisions in the end. For this [project], I was kind of given free-range. I knew what to do, and I had oversight for overall stuff, but in the end they just said ‘we want something that does this’ and I just did it. I think that’s the really exciting part about it, is that it gives me a lot of freedom.

What about least favourite parts?

Until I went to the lab in Bristol, the big downside was that nobody was doing what I was doing so my ability to learn more was really hindered. As much as I thought I was doing something that was really cool I knew I wasn’t doing it as well as I could. I couldn’t simulate a real reaction because I didn’t have the quantum calculation software or the understanding of that. The biggest downside was the limits of … working completely on your own is that you don’t have people to teach you.

Do you think UVic is a good place to do research as an undergraduate?

For chemistry, I think my experience with it has been pretty good. I would say there definitely isn’t a streamline for it. You have to be passionate and motivated and have the drive to do it, and the self-control to push yourself to do it cause it isn’t streamlined. If there’s anything I think UVic could improve, it’s get some more money to do undergrad research. There’s a lot of money for grad students, obviously, but there isn’t a lot of money for undergrads. Which is maybe reasonable, but it makes it hard to do [even] if you’re really motivated about something.