COLLEGE STATION, TX -- Her questions often end with "Eh?" Her treks down Texas Avenue were slower at first than the posted speed limit because her speedometer is in kilometers. And she's just making peace with temperature highs that top an average of about 80 degrees (or 27 Celsius, as she'd put it).
Courtney Dickie is a Canadian learning the ropes of Aggieland as a chemistry doctoral student at Texas A&M University. She received a prestigious graduate fellowship from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, a funding agency similar to the National Science Foundation.
"The culture here actually isn't that different from Calgary," she said. "Many people call Alberta the Texas of Canada because of the oil and gas industry and western culture there. Everyone drives a truck, and we have cowboys, too. College Station is basically a hotter version of Alberta."
According to fall 2012 data, 60 of the nearly 5,000 international students attending the College Station campus were from America's northern neighbor. At a time when Texas A&M is focused on bolstering its international chops, Dickie's decision to move to College Station is a microcosm of the story behind the university's global rise: the reputation and relationships built by the school's faculty members.
"When I was looking into grad schools, one of my professors in Canada suggested I work for Dr. François P. Gabbaï at Texas A&M University," Dickie said of the Department of Chemistry professor whose laboratory she now calls home. "I then visited and thought the program was really strong."
One of the Gabbaï lab's strengths is in sensing fluoride anions, or negatively charged ions. He recently received a $440,000 NSF grant to further develop technology he created using organometallic molecules to more precisely detect fluoride -- which can have negative health effects at high levels -- in drinking water.
"I'm pretty close to the Canadian community because the kind of chemistry I do -- main group chemistry -- is well represented in Canada and not so much in the U.S.,"Gabbaï said. "I think I was in Canada four times just last summer. I go often because I'm invited often."
Dickie will be working on another stage of the Gabbaï group's research: going beyond just capturing and sequestering anions, and seeing whether anion release could be triggered by applying an external stimulus, such as light. The research could have implications for the capture of anions in water, where a molecule could, for instance, remove chloride out of salt water and release it into another medium.
"I like investigating unique structures and bonding environments in molecules," Dickie said. "It's fascinating to synthesize new products. I'm especially interested in inorganic chemistry because it's applicable to solving many problems globally. And I like metals."
Dickie graduated with honors from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, initially starting as a biology major at the University of Calgary before making the switch to chemistry. She is from Calgary and was born in a small town called Medicine Hat (which is also the hometown of retired Vancouver Canucks captain Trevor Linden, who was coached by Dickie's dad in midget AAA hockey).
"I just knew I wanted to pursue something in science, but I didn‘t know what," she said. "Initially, I wanted to be a doctor, but I faint at the sight of blood, so it wasn't a good career for me. Eventually, I realized I just liked my chemistry courses more than biology, so I made the switch."
After she completes her doctorate at Texas A&M, she plans on possibly completing a postdoctoral fellowship in Germany (she speaks German). But that's a long way away. Right now, she's mostly focused on taking in Texas and Aggieland. It's the little differences she's working at, such as unit conversions and spelling variations -- she puts a "U" beside all her "O"s. And the slips of paper she writes on to access funds from her bank aren't checks. They're cheques.
"Checks are what happen in hockey," she said.
To learn more about the Gabbaï research group, visit http://www.chem.tamu.edu/rgroup/gabbai/.
For more information on the Texas A&M Chemistry graduate program and related options, go to http://www.chem.tamu.edu/academics/graduate/