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Chemistry Research Encounter

By Dave Larsen

Keegan Gupta got a head start on his fellow first-year University of Dayton students by spending several days on campus in late July as part of a chemistry research team.

Gupta, a pre-medicine major from Lewis Center, Ohio, participated in the Chemistry Research Encounter (CRE), a new opportunity for incoming first-year students from underrepresented groups in STEM or undeclared majors. The program, July 21-24, paired students with faculty mentors from the Department of Chemistry to experience undergraduate summer research and help facilitate their transition to college.

“I enjoyed having the one-on-one experiences with faculty members to maybe grow a connection with them before school starts, so I would have an upper-hand inside and outside of the classroom — having someone to rely on for help with schooling or even just life in general here in Dayton,” Gupta said.

Caleb Cecil, a first-year computer engineering major from the Chicago area, accepted an invitation to attend the program because it seemed like a good opportunity to understand research and also develop relationships with faculty.

“Getting here, I felt welcomed and got to learn about the chemistry department, what happens there and who to go see,” Cecil said. “I connected with resources there, as well, so it was nice, even though I’m not a chemistry major.”

The CRE program was developed by Jeremy Erb, assistant professor of chemistry, who joined the University faculty in 2013. The idea came from a grant application for new lab equipment, which included a component about the broader impacts of the potential funding. His goal was to allow students coming directly from high school to work with scientific instruments in University labs before starting college.

Erb contacted students who also were invited to attend the University’s Minority STEM Summer Bridge program, which gives incoming science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors the opportunity to prepare for their first semester by participating in college-level course previews of chemistry, physics and calculus, as well as hands-on science and engineering modules. He tapped into that existing program to offer participants a more chemistry-specific research experience, without having to visit campus twice during the summer.

“We have a lot of undergraduates who do summer research with faculty mentors. I think that is a strength for UD’s chemistry department,” Erb said. “It’s not just peer-led mentors, like learning from graduate students. You really get to do a lot of interactions with faculty.”

In addition to Erb, faculty members Justin Biffinger, Mark Masthay and Kimberly Trick also participated in the CRE.

Brandon Weise, a first-year chemical engineering major from Fairview, Ohio, enjoyed exploring a range of chemistry research areas, as well as other science disciplines. His preference was organic chemistry, which paired him with Erb.

“Organic chemistry is a key part of chemical engineering, so it would be useful to my future to go into the research of that,” Weise said. “But I did enjoy going to the other areas and checking out things there. The research here is really interesting and I do like the labs and all the different activities that we have.”

CRE participants also got to explore life in Dayton beyond the University campus. They visited the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, hiked in John Bryan State Park and dined with faculty at area restaurants. The program was funded by the Department of Chemistry and the College of Arts and Sciences Office of the Dean.

Erb said he would be pleased if the program resulted in more students becoming chemistry majors. However, his goal is to engage students in research and help them feel like they belong as part of the campus’ scientific community.

“It is a pretty brief research encounter, but it is meant to facilitate those personal connections as much as it is to expose them to how scientific research is performed, and maybe get them excited about their career path,” Erb said. “For me, that was what set me on my trajectory, doing undergraduate research in college. I took the next couple of steps from there,” earning master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University.

For more information, please visit the Department of Chemistry website.

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