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Spring Hill College Magazine

Compounding Forces

Forging Bonds Between Students and Discovery

The educational experience created by Spring Hill chemistry faculty for young Badger scientists mirrors the very nature of their scientific field of discovery.

Diverse backgrounds, experiences and areas of expertise combine with an unwavering commitment to providing students with educational and career-enriching research opportunities and yield far-reaching results. And in the process, young scientists, who will eventually go forth to seek both answers to new questions and career paths, are formed.   

Allyn Schoeffler, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry and now in her second year at Spring Hill, has taken on students for research since she arrived. From her own experience, she knows how important this continuous research experience can be. “When you build on a project over years rather than weeks it gives you a sense of how science is really done and it helps develop a mentoring relationship that you just can’t put a price on,” she said. 

Spring Hill chemistry faculty members are advocates for dedicated research experiences at the undergraduate level. Many graduate programs require a significant portion of research, and early exposure can help students realize if the experience suits their interests and personality. This summer, four chemistry and biochemistry majors participated in research on campus with Schoeffler and Carolyn Simmons, PhD, while six students were accepted into research programs funded by the National Science Foundation at larger universities.

Spring Hill chemistry major Rae Koch ’17 was among the group of students that worked with Schoeffler this past summer to test how and why proteins function within extreme environments to untangle DNA strands. She was surprised by how much she enjoyed the actual research experience, and she credits already having an established relationship with Schoeffler and the two other students in the group as a key to her positive experience. Koch is quick to acknowledge the level of attention she has received from professors and understands its importance in making the challenging coursework and research possible. For Koch and peers, student-faculty relationships within the program began during her freshmen year. “Working with someone I look up to made me feel comfortable while facing the challenging work,” she notes. The arrangement also provided her with what she considers to be a much-welcomed opportunity to discuss science as a career.

According to Simmons, associate professor, analytical chemist and chair of the Department of Chemistry, Physics & Engineering, the group has met with success over the last 10 years in getting students accepted into competitive programs. Being a part of the “process of discovery” can be a turning point for many of these students in solidifying, or changing, their career directions. “It’s their first experience of having ownership of a scientific question. They can see if that’s the thing that really fires them up – going after a little mystery. It’s important for them to know if they enjoy asking questions with no answers,” Simmons added. 

Chemistry major Ryan Bujol ’17 spent the summer testing a variety of materials for use as an anode, or the positively charged end, of lithium ion batteries. He noted that even though his experiment failed, he now knows two very important things – he can handle more years of research, and chemistry is still the right career path for him. “I’ve come to the realization that this is what I want to do. I want to go to grad school. I want to be a doctor.” Bujol, who learned about his research experience with Georgia Southern University through Lesli Bordas, PhD, associate professor of chemistry, is quick to add that his relationship with older chemistry students showed him how important this research experience would be for his career. 

Research experience can also increase the chances of being accepted into a preferred graduate or medical school, and a recommendation letter from a research mentor can be more impactful than a letter from a teacher. In the 11 years since Simmons joined the department, Spring Hill chemistry and biochemistry graduates applying to PhD programs have had a 100 percent acceptance rate. During this same time period, the college has also supported participation in regional, and sometimes national, conferences hosted by the American Chemical Society (ACS) for interested students. 

Career Readiness and Scientific Fluency 

This October, a record number of Spring Hill students presented at the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society (SERMACS) in Columbia, South Carolina. Nine students delivered a poster presentation based upon their research from the summer. The opportunity to present reinforces the importance of communication skills when explaining scientific concepts. In an expo hall filled with thousands of people, presenters have roughly 30 seconds to interest attendees in their research. Simmons believes communication is an underappreciated, but important, soft skill that is emphasized in the Spring Hill program. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn how to communicate in a scientific form,” she said. “If they get practice doing that, then that sets them ahead for the long term.” 

Reflecting on his presentation and research experience, Bujol adds, “It’s a moment of fulfillment. I did all this hard work and I’m able to say, ‘Hey, here’s what I did,’” he said, adding that research is exciting because it puts you on the forefront of science. “You’re doing something that no one has ever done before in history.”  

Spring Hill students at SERMACS not only present their work, but see presentations from graduate students and professionals in the chemistry field. This aspect of the conference exposes them to what’s happening in research right now, according to Schoeffler. She said they may see research that someone completed last week and has not been published yet. “You get to see where the bleeding edge is,” she added.

Along with the scientific presentations and other educational activities, the conference hosts a graduate school fair where the students can meet representatives from numerous graduate programs. For Schoeffler, this component of the conference provides an essential experience for the students to gain much-needed exposure to other programs to ascertain admissions requirements and fit. 

To prepare the students for the conference, Schoeffler put together a Pathways to Purpose small group and met with all of the student presenters to talk about how they could make the most of the conference: what they should do, how to budget their time, and what to wear. After the conference, they met again to debrief, reflect on what they had learned, and then she tied all of it back to Pathway’s goal – vocational discernment.

A record number of Spring Hill students presented their research at the SERMACS conference in South Carolina in October 2016.
A record number of Spring Hill students presented their research at the SERMACS conference in South Carolina in October 2016.

Elements Of Success

Along with the high number of presenters, the chemistry department will graduate eight majors this year, the largest number since Simmons arrived at Spring Hill. 

The size of Spring Hill’s program provides abundant access to both equipment and continuous, personal time with faculty members. Bordas, who has been with the college for 17 years, sees the hands-on aspect of the Spring Hill program as one of its main differentiators. Spring Hill’s lab requirement also exceeds the benchmark suggested by the ACS–  a curriculum component that the team believes ultimately translates into increased proficiency and preparedness for students.

Reflecting upon the experience, Bujol adds, “I felt like I knew everything I needed to, and if I didn’t, I had the tools to learn it. I know how to learn things and figure out what I need to figure out.” 

Simmons notes that the school’s liberal arts curriculum is responsible for teaching the students how to be good writers and leaves them with excellent problem solving and critical thinking skills, which in turn helps them succeed in chemistry. 

“It’s not just a focus on science – they’re also heavily engaged in their other core classes,” she said. “I think if we are providing a top notch, solid chemistry and biochemistry curriculum, that, along with the Jesuit, liberal arts core, makes them exceptionally prepared for life after they leave Spring Hill.” 

Visit the website for the Department of Chemistry, Physics & Engineering to learn more about the program.

Extended caption for photo with students - A record number of Spring Hill students presented their research at the SERMACS conference in South Carolina in October. Front row: Morgan Davis ’17 and faculty members Allyn Schoeffler, PhD, and Carolyn Simmons, PhD; middle row: Jennifer Bonsutto ’17 and Madeline Jones ’19; back row: Chris Hamilton ’17, Rae Koch ’17, Ryan Bujol ’17 and Seth Polansky ’17. (Not pictured: Lillian DeSousa ’17 and Patricia MgBodile ’18.)

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