Commonwealth Chemistry Poster conference winners: Donna Hitlal

In preparation for the upcoming 5th Commonwealth Chemistry Poster conference on September 11-12th 2024, we wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of a selection of our past poster prize winners.

Please find below an interview conducted with 2023 Commonwealth Chemistry Poster conference winner Donna Hitlal from the University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago who won a prize in the Quality Education category for the poster entitled “Investigating the effect of 3D immersive virtual reality technology on student interest, motivation and performance in undergraduate chemistry.” You can check out Donna’s poster in our online gallery here.

Donna Hitlal, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus

Donna Hitlal, AMRSC, is a PhD Candidate at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus in Trinidad and Tobago, Donna researches the effect of using 3D Virtual Reality technology to assist in teaching undergraduate chemistry. Donna also works for The UWI as an undergraduate chemistry laboratory demonstrator and has been doing so for the past five years. In addition to her BSc. in Chemistry with a minor in Industrial Chemistry from The UWI, STA, Donna holds a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of London and over 20 years of experience as a graphics artist and manager in the offset and digital printing industry.

Donna has researched the use of virtual chemistry laboratories in the Caribbean which was published in the Journal of Chemical Education in 2023. Donna was a delegate at the Commonwealth Chemistry Conference in May 2023 and at The UWI 2023 Research Festival.

Donna lives in the lush green valley of Santa Cruz in Trinidad with her husband of over 20 years and her daughter who is 14 years old. An avid hill walker, Donna spends her free time expanding her knowledge of gastronomy, languages, world affairs, classical music and art history.

Donna Hitlal

© Donna Hitlal

What made you decide to study chemistry?

At the O’Level and Advanced level, I studied the sciences and chemistry was one of the subjects. I started at The UWI in 1997 and dropped out by 1999. At the time I lacked guidance on where chemistry could take me and my motivation to complete the degree was very low. I went on to work in other areas and even completed a Bachelor of Laws along the way, but I could never get the chemistry degree I never finished out of my mind. As a mom, I also wanted be a good example for my daughter. In 2016 I decided to start again. My mission to finish what I once started turned into a passion for chemistry and I wanted more! After I finished the BSc. in Chemistry with upper second class honors I went on postgraduate research in chemistry in order to complete my PhD.

What aspect of your work are you most excited about and what do you find most challenging about your research?

I am most excited about meeting with young chemists just starting their degrees. Many of them are like me when I was their age, they have no idea where chemistry can take them. I enjoy talking to them about navigating undergraduate chemistry and I tell them about career possibilities with chemistry for both industry and academia. I try to inspire them to go as far as they can, as fast as they can in chemistry. The most challenging thing about my research is what most chemists can relate to, working with limited funding to get the best possible hardware and software for my projects.

If you could meet one chemist throughout history and ask them one question, who would it be and what would you ask them?

I would like to meet Dorothy Hodgkin who was an English chemist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry by determining the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12. She lived from 1910 to 1994 and studied chemistry at Oxford when women were not normally accepted. She is an inspiration to me because she was a family woman who also lived with chronic rheumatoid arthritis but never stopped her research work. One of my questions to her would be – Out of the many achievements during your lifetime, which would you consider your most valuable?

In no more than 50 words, explain how your research contributes to the UN SDGs.

My research contributes to quality education (SDG4) and in my opinion the other SDG’s are unattainable without it. For example, education can be linked to eradicating poverty(1), hunger(2) and illness(3) as well as producing clean water(6) and energy(7), reducing inequalities(10), raising climate action awareness(13) and developing industry, innovation and infrastructure(9).

What are the future directions for your research?

In the future, my work will include a formal project for mentorship of young women and girls to continue their chemistry studies into establish chemistry careers, particularly in developing countries. I also intend to embark on a research project that merges my love for chemical education research with environmental chemistry and sustainable chemistry.

What or who motivates/inspires you?

My family inspires and motivates me. I am a first generation university student and my parents, my husband and my daughter inspired and motivate me to become the first PhD in my family’s history.

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