Student Success

Path of learning has taken Justin Vigar around the world

A love of all things outdoors — mountain biking, skiing and fly fishing — led Justin Vigar (BSc ’12) to the town of Whistler, British Columbia after he graduated from Lethbridge Collegiate Institute.

There he found the good life, surrounded by a beautiful environment and happy, fit, excited people doing what they loved. The fly in the ointment? Most people in Whistler were under the age of 25 and couldn’t afford to sustainably live there.

“I thought ‘I’m going to be a dentist,’ so I applied to U of A and U of L,” he says. “As a dentist I could probably work four days a week and afford to live in Whistler.”

He chose the U of L and found molecular biology particularly enjoyable in his first year of studies. His enjoyment turned into an excitement for science that continued to build throughout his undergraduate studies. He found the sciences meshed with his own concerns. Like many youth growing  up, Vigar had heard a lot about problems facing our world, including climate change, the global food crises, mass extinctions, pollution and pandemics. 

“As I was learning about curiosity-driven research and getting more excited about discovery and the inherent beauty of the natural world, I was also seeing how innovations in science were directly tackling critical global problems,” he says. “If I was going to have a meaningful career able to contribute to solving some of these problems, I thought science would be the way to go. Part of me still wanted to be a dentist though. In order to build my resume to be competitive for professional school I volunteered a lot and joined iGEM.”

Participating in iGEM proved to be both a foundation and a launching pad. Vigar credits iGEM with giving him a solid work ethic and the opportunity to gain skills in lab work.

“In addition to working in the lab; we were collaborating with industry partners, community leaders and artists towards reducing environmental degradation caused by oilsands development,” he says. “The iGEM program at the U of L gives you a lot of different experiences, like going to conferences and working with industry. Most importantly, you must consider the broader social, environmental, and economic implications of your project—the human practices aspect.

“One thing iGEM really focuses on is that discovery and science are only part of the story. If you want to solve global issues, science isn’t always enough. You really need partnership and understanding between scientists, bioethicists, industry, government, and involvement from your community — there’s so much that needs to come together to make these solutions precipitate into something that makes a tangible change in the world. iGEM really helped me understand that and it got me even more excited that biology could be leveraged help people and the planet.”

Searching for a different experience, Vigar left his studies to work with an NGO in Uganda. The project involved bringing together infrastructure for solar panels, batteries and electricity to build computer labs in rural areas of Uganda and then train computer teachers so they could carry out computer lessons. When he returned to Canada and the U of L, he started working with Dr. Hans-Joachim (H-J) Wieden (chemistry & biochemistry) at the Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute (ARRTI). That got him involved in an international project to understand how bacterial cells regulate protein production — a project that would ultimately make biology easier to engineer. He moved to Germany to work in Dr. Jörg Vogel’s lab at the Institute for Molecular Infection Biology to carry out experiments. This project also involves a biophysics component; he carries out those experiments at the Diamond Particle Accelerator in Oxford, UK.

In addition, Vigar is a delegate to the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (UNCBD) with iGEM. He represents iGEM at Conference of the Parties meetings, the last of which was in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. He’s also a Bio-Belt ambassador through SynBioBeta innovation network in San Francisco, USA. As a representative of Alberta, he works to attract economic development and investment in biotechnology to southern Alberta.

Vigar plans to pursue doctoral studies and is considering a school in the U.S. Until then, he’ll be working on finishing the projects he’s involved with now. 

“My experience at the U of L has been very transformative,” he says. “As a scientist, the liberal education philosophy has really enhanced my degree by not just learning how to do great science but learning how to being a scientist. So much more goes into that than lab work. It’s important the liberal education philosophy be carried over to grad school, too. H-J really focuses on providing a well-rounded graduate experience. Most of his students are involved in some other venture apart from their lab work.”