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April 22, 2002
Volume 80, Number 16
CENEAR 80 16 pp. 39-41
ISSN 0009-2347
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Chemists believe undergrad research motivates a broad cross section of students to stick to science


There's no doubt about it: undergraduate research is hot stuff. Witness the multiday sessions on the topic in the Division of Chemical Education at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Orlando earlier this month. And the very day hundreds of posters by undergrads were on display in Orlando, USA Today ran a story on the rising tide of students participating in research, highlighting an Illinois Wesleyan University senior's experience in a chemistry lab.


BELIEVERS Tabor (clockwise from upper left), Ford, Wesemann, and Wenzel discussed undergrad research issues.

Many chemists are convinced the payoffs of integrating undergraduates into the research laboratory are manifold. The experience, they say, increases students' interest in the field and their understanding of how scientists think and work on real problems. The entire community benefits, it's believed, because students involved in research--including underrepresented minorities--are more likely to choose to major in chemistry and go on to graduate school.

"I personally think our future is strongly tied to our ability to get students involved in undergraduate research now," Nancy E. Levinger, associate professor of chemistry at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, told C&EN. "The best way to get students into the pipeline is to show them how great it is to do research. That's what gets us hooked." Levinger is director of the National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program in chemistry at Fort Collins.

Yet little solid evidence exists to confirm the anecdotal evidence of the benefits of undergraduate research. So funding agencies that support undergraduate research activities are also backing studies of the outcomes. "The National Institutes of Health is asking if research experience is necessary for going on to the Ph.D.," said Derrick C. Tabor, program director in the Division of Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. "We want to know what kind of experience is the most valuable."

Indeed, the audience at one Orlando symposium was disappointed when a presentation of the first results of an NSF-funded assessment study was canceled. The symposium was organized by Levinger with chemistry professor Mitchell R. Malachowski of the University of San Diego and NSF Chemistry Division Program Director John G. Stevens and titled "Undergraduate Research: Where Have We Been? Where Are We? And Where Are We Going?" The assessment project's first stage is focusing on the nature and effects of undergraduate research experiences at four institutions, according to sociologist Elaine Seymour of the Center for the Advancement of Research & Teaching in the Social Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She and her coinvestigators believed they could not do their data justice in a short presentation at the ACS meeting, she told C&EN. They are now planning to present their initial findings at the national conference of the Council on Undergraduate Research to be held June 19–22 at Connecticut College, New London.

Noteworthy and successful undergraduate research programs--including those that reach out to minority and community college students and some that have an international component--were highlighted in Orlando. But the current situation is not free of strain. The growing expectation that faculty involve undergraduates in projects that will lead to publishable results is adding to the pressures on faculty members at some predominantly undergraduate institutions, presentations and discussions in Orlando made clear.

IN THE SUCCESSFUL Louisiana Alliance for Minority Participation (LAMP), student participation in research is an integral component of the systemic mentoring model it employs, according to Robert L. Ford, LAMP project director. Ford, who is a chemistry professor at Southern University and A&M College, Baton Rouge, is this year's recipient of the Henry Hill Award (see page 34).

Like the other such alliances funded by NSF, LAMP's goals are to increase the number of minority students receiving bachelor's degrees in science, math, engineering, and technology and to increase the number of those graduates going on to Ph.D. programs. "We didn't quite double the numbers" of minorities getting such degrees during the program's first phase, from its inception in 1995 to 2001, Ford noted. "But the 11 colleges and universities in the alliance made substantial progress relative to the Louisiana institutions that are not members."

As recently as the 1980s, opportunities for research were few and far between at historically black colleges and universities in Louisiana. "Though many of the faculty members were well trained as researchers at some of the nation's best graduate institutions, research funding and expectations for research output were virtually nonexistent," Ford said.

That situation improved as the state of Louisiana changed its policies and NSF and NIH introduced a variety of applicable programs. Now, research with undergraduates in Louisiana is funded by a broad spectrum of sources. The quality of the work is high, Ford said. "The presentations we require our undergrads to make might fool you. You wouldn't know it was undergraduate research if it weren't identified that way."

Like Southern University, California State University, Los Angeles, is a predominantly minority institution. With an enrollment that is 8% African American, 53.5% Hispanic, 0.5% American Indian, 22% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 16% white, Cal State LA is "the most culturally diverse four-year institution in the U.S.," according to Carlos G. Gutierrez, professor of chemistry and biochemistry there.

Almost two-thirds of the school's student body transfers from community colleges, although the figure is only about 45% in the chemical sciences. "We're lucky if they can graduate in six years," Gutierrez says. "Many of them are helping to support their families."

Through the NSF REU program and NIH's Bridges to the Future program, Cal State LA has been working to increase the numbers of minority community college students that transfer into science majors at four-year colleges and universities. The core of the programs is summer laboratory research in a faculty member's lab.

"Involvement in research is key, but intense research participation during the summer isn't enough," Gutierrez said in Orlando. "You need a highly structured environment with workshops and poster sessions."

8016educ1.duran 8016educ1.Schrum



HAVE A PROJECT ready and a desk and lab space prepared when students arrive, Gutierrez advised. The effort signals that you value them as part of the team. "Give them a real project, or at least part of one," he stressed. "Don't just make them somebody's dishwasher.

"When a student comes into my group, the idea is that we will publish the research," he said. "At Cal State LA, undergraduates are our bread and butter. You can come into our department anytime, day or night, and find it's active and vibrant."

Like Gutierrez, many speakers in Orlando pointed to NSF's REU program as the bedrock support of undergraduate research in chemistry. (Other pillars of support include NIH, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the ACS Petroleum Research Fund, Research Corporation, and the Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Program, as well as other NSF programs.) The current 60 chemistry REU sites constitute 15% of the total number funded by NSF, according to chemist Margaret A. Cavanaugh, staff associate in the agency's Office of the Director. NSF supports 10 students per site with an average stipend of $3,000 for 10 weeks of summer research, with approximately five out of six of those students coming from outside the host institutions.

A growing number of REU programs are international, according to Randolph S. Duran, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Florida, Gainesville. For example, since 1997 the Florida chemistry REU project has been sending U.S. undergraduates to France to carry out research, while French students travel to the U.S. to work in Florida's labs.

"Chemistry graduate students in the U.S. tend to have the impression that chemistry was discovered here," Duran said. "We argued to NSF that it would be useful to give undergrads an experience outside the country so they could see science done a different way before their opinions become fixed."

The Florida program is supported by NSF, the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and other French funding sources. The NSF grant allows U.S. students to spend 12 weeks immersed in chemistry research at any of three universities in France.

"When we changed from just having a domestic site to international, our REU program began drawing applicants from much more widely across the U.S.," Duran noted. "The students tend to be the very best and may not have been really challenged before. But they are definitely challenged to get enough done in three months, in an immersion program overseas, to coauthor a publication."

Duran also described other international REU sites, from tropical ecosystem research in Africa to marine science in China. The University of California, Santa Cruz, is starting an organic chemistry program in Thailand this summer, he said.

While no faculty member is ever likely to say he or she has time to spare, professors like Duran at research-intensive universities may be better able to integrate carrying out research with undergraduates into their responsibilities than those with heavier teaching loads.

Being successful in research at an undergraduate institution, according to chemistry professor Thomas J. Wenzel of Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, takes a combination of factors: good ideas, the ability to implement those ideas, money and infrastructure, high standards, passion, and time. "It's unreasonable to expect much undergraduate research if a faculty member has a teaching load of more than 12 contact hours per week," he said.

Jodi L. Wesemann, associate professor of chemistry at Saint Mary's College of California, Moraga, argued that it is rare for institutions to have the committed faculty, supportive administrative policies, and appropriate resources for a successful undergraduate research program.

"TEACHING IS the first priority at my school," she said. "It is frustrating to try to convince the administration that research with undergraduates is effective scholarship and a valuable way of teaching."

In a "view from the trenches," assistant professor of chemistry Kimberley F. Schrum of Whittier College, in California, described her perspective on the challenges of conducting undergraduate research at resource-poor institutions with heavy teaching loads. Schrum has taught at two such schools: Whittier and Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn. Although different from each other in many ways, such schools harbor common barriers including lack of time and lack of administrative support for undergraduate research. The situation is more favorable, she noted, in institutions with a long history of successful undergraduate involvement in research, such as Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

Collaboration with researchers elsewhere is one strategy that could help struggling faculty members, Schrum suggested. So would funds that would free up time. "Even getting out of one lab section a semester would be a huge improvement," she said.

Despite the challenges, "you can tell people are really passionate about undergraduate research," Malachowski, who is president-elect of the Council on Undergraduate Research, told C&EN.

"That passion is what keeps you going," Malachowski said. "No matter what the obstacles, the psychic reward is tremendous and never stops."

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