Wetmore harnesses power of computers to tackle some of society's biggest problems

Dr. Stacey Wetmore admits she used to break her fair share of equipment and spill enough compounds that experimental chemistry wasn’t the most prudent career choice. She took her mathematical aptitude and applied it to her chemical knowledge and set up shop in front of a computer screen – and has been at the forefront of computational chemistry ever since.

Wetmore will give the southern Alberta community a look at this essential field of study at the final PUBlic Professor Series event of the spring on Thursday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at Lethbridge City Hall. DNA Damage, Repair and Disease: How Computers Can Help Us Understand will discuss how computer calculations can provide the information required to complement traditional experimental work in the lab.

Dr. Stacey Wetmore is passionate about her work and involves students in every aspect of her research in computational chemistry.

“The simplest way to understand it is chemistry by computers,” says Wetmore. “We use a computer cluster for our work, which is like thousands of computers all linked together.”

Whereas traditional “wet” experiments in a chemistry lab see chemists create compounds out of physical ingredients, Wetmore’s group will model a chemical on the computer, often in much less time.

“In drug design for example, we can model how a lot of different compounds interact with whatever we are trying to affect and come up with some potential targets for the compound to attack. We then turn it over to the lab where they can go away and spend time actually making the compounds and testing them. We provide another important piece to the puzzle,” she says.

Born and raised in Saint John, NB, Wetmore completed her undergraduate degree at Mount Allison University before earning her doctorate in computational chemistry at Dalhousie University. She came to the U of L in 2006 as a Canada Research Chair and quickly established the University’s own computer cluster, allowing for cutting-edge computational research that complemented an outstanding lab environment already in place.

Funny, engaging and passionate about her work, Wetmore involves her students, from high school-aged to the post-doctorate level, in every aspect of research.

“I went back to Mount Allison after my post-doc studies in Australia because of the undergraduate teaching and undergraduate research that they were doing. That’s what got me involved in this in the first place,” she says. “When the position at the U of L came up, it seemed like it offered that same sort of atmosphere and it also had a growing graduate program. When I got here I couldn’t believe the facilities available at the U of L, and the quality of staff and students.”

Now, Wetmore is on the ground floor of projects that look to tackle some of society’s biggest problems. She’s currently studying DNA damage and repair, with implications that contribute to fields such as cancer research.

“I’m not saying we’re going to cure cancer here, but I think it’s important to make this connection between some of the fundamental chemistry we do, the important training we do and how that relates to these bigger problems we face,” she says. “Directly, I’m not going to solve the problem, but all these little pieces have to come together at some point.”

All the while, she’s breaking down misconceptions that chemicals are either unnatural or bad. A forum such as PUBlic Professor helps to dispel some of these notions.

“There are so many negative implications of chemicals out there through marketing and media,” she says. “From that perspective, it’s really important to go out and say that this is what chemistry is about, all chemicals aren’t bad, I’m a chemist and look at what I’m doing with chemistry. It’s about solving bigger problems and trying to make our lives better.”