Emily Groegler, inset above, and Austin Meals, at the chalkboard with chemistry faculty member Justin Fair, worked to discover and refine a new way to create a class of chemicals known as esters. Esters are commonly used as food flavorings and fragrances. Unlike other methods of producing esters, their method avoids use of harsh chemical solvents or heavy-metal catalysts, providing a greener method that produces a smaller chemical footprint. Photo: Keith Boyer
Program Prepares Science Students for a Competitive Future
As an undergraduate biochemistry major, Justin Fair attended Virginia Tech, which offered ample research opportunities, but it wasn’t until his junior year that he discovered how to get into a lab to gain that valuable experience.
“And by then, I hadn’t made any connections to my faculty members, and all the lab positions for undergraduates were maxed out.”
Fair, who went on to earn his master’s degree at IUP in 2004 and his doctoral degree at the University of Connecticut, today is a member of IUP’s chemistry faculty. He doesn’t want any undergraduate student to miss out the way he did.
His aim is to prepare students for their next phase—whatever that might be. Through
Research Experiences for Summer Scholars at IUP, a program Fair styled after a National Science Foundation project, students use research opportunities to blaze their own trails, sometimes as early as freshman year. These opportunities help them understand what paths they might wish to take, whether that’s pursuing graduate education and remaining in academia or interning in industrial settings.
In addition to research, Fair and his colleagues have provided what they view as professional development—experience in leading experiments in addition to skills every student, regardless of major, needs. Participants gain confidence as well as insight, and the experience itself helps determine whether research is the right fit for them.
“We want to make sure their résumés allow them to stand out from the crowd,” Fair said. “We want to get them into research as early as we can, to give them a leg up, so that by junior or senior year, they can qualify for research experiences elsewhere or for internships.”
The program is open to all students in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Thirty stayed at IUP through last summer to participate.
“The dean was adamant that we would turn no one down, but definitely, the funding is competitive,” Fair said. “We string together stipends for students from the Dean’s Innovation Fund and various budgets and other sources. That way, we can defray the cost of staying in Indiana over the summer for some students.”
Despite the fact RESS is open to any student enrolled in the college, interested students still need to complete an application process to sell themselves, which, according to Fair, is just another piece of the professional development puzzle. After students are assigned a faculty mentor, they develop a research topic and then spend the summer months examining it. They also have access to various academic and recreational activities, anything from group discussions and guest lectures to weekend trips to take the edge off the stress and tedium that are part of daily research.
The program culminates in an afternoon styled after an academic conference, with a guest speaker. This year’s speaker was Alan Russell, chief innovation officer and executive vice president of Allegheny Health Network, who also is known for providing TED talks on regenerative medicine. The day ends in a poster session, providing students the opportunity to explain their findings.
“The most important thing is that undergraduates lead the research project,” Fair said. “At most other universities, it’s not like that. Usually, the emphasis is on the graduate student or the postdoctoral student. Here, we want the undergraduates to lead the projects.”
Fair said since the program’s inception two years ago, student scholarship as reflected in students’ being named as co-authors in published work and making presentations at regional and national conferences has more than doubled.
“In this program, they do more than present their research projects. They learn how to actually sell themselves—and that’s a skill they’ll need down the road.”