When chemistry and English major Jackie Boudle first applied for a spot in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, she admits she was a little picky about what she wanted to do.
“I wasn’t a huge fan of electrochemistry, to be honest,” she laughs. But after spending half of her summer working hard in the laboratory of electrochemist James Rusling, she’s come around.
“I’ve been able to see concepts I’ve learned about in classes working in an applied way,” she says. “And to be able to say, ‘Wow, I made a light bulb’ – that’s pretty exciting.”
The Mount Holyoke junior is one of more than 30 undergraduates from colleges around the country who traveled to Storrs this summer to participate in the REU program in CLAS’s chemistry, math and physiology and neurobiology departments. The competitive scholarships are awarded for research under the supervision of faculty at major universities.
“Students who might otherwise miss out on undergrad research can get some exposure to a research intensive environment,” says Associate Professor Mark Peczuh, who oversees the chemistry program. “It’s what we call a ‘grad school simulation’: students get to experience what it’s like to be a graduate student before they actually go.”
For Boudle, although Mount Holyoke conducts some research, these opportunities are fewer than those offered at a state flagship university like UConn. The stipend offered by NSF was more than enough to cover the two jobs she usually works to pay her tuition, so receiving the fellowship was the best of both worlds.
“The nice thing about this program is that we get to meet students from all over the country and the world,” she says. “And it’s great that it’s not about who is getting an A on the test – we’re not competing for anything,” she says. “Except maybe the dorm washing machines.”
An REU veteran
In 1999, John D’Angelo, now a professor of chemistry at Alfred University in New York, participated in his first REU. The Stony Brook undergraduate was in the first class of REUs to work in UConn’s newly built chemistry building, and he remembers it vividly.
“They had all these great new labs that were really exciting to work in,” he says.
Now, as a professor at Alfred, he sends undergraduates to REU programs yearly. This year, one of his students is an REU student at UConn.
“I’ve seen this program from all sides,” he says. “As a mentor I’d help a student get trained on techniques, and I’d stand over their shoulder for a week or so. But then I’d let them go ahead and do their own work. Some like it, and some hate it,” he admits.
“But it always helps them figure things out – not just about their career path, but about their own personality.”
Kaba Tandjigora, a junior at Montclair State University in New Jersey, originally hails from Senegal and is interested in drug discovery. Her transition to the U.S. was a tough one when she moved here four years ago. But it quickly got better, she says, and now she especially appreciates the practice she gets with explaining science concepts to others.
“We have weekly group meetings where students have to present,” she says of her team in Associate Professor Mark Peczuh’s laboratory. “You do your own research and show everyone what you’ve found, and it’s been a big help with my communication skills.”
At UConn she really appreciates all of the time she gets to spend in the laboratory with her graduate student mentor.
“When you’re in a laboratory class, your time is always so limited,” she says. “But in this program you get to work on a questions for seven weeks, so you start to feel like an expert on that topic.”
A member of the Lumbee Native American tribe, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, senior Terry Chavis has a keen interest in different cultures and traditions. His sociology minor at the North Carolina’s Mars Hill College complements his biology major and chemistry minor, he says, because it helps him to diversify his knowledge of the world.
“I’m enthusiastic about a lot of things, whether it’s biology or hearing about someone’s day,” he says.
As an aspiring veterinarian, Chavis worked in the laboratory of Larry Renfro, professor and head of the Department of Physiology and Neurobiology. By studying a particular protein in the brain, he’s learning to use techniques and methods that he wouldn’t have been able to at Mars Hill.
But the most challenging part, he says, is the writing.
“I got back the introduction to my final paper from Dr. Renfro, and I’ve never seen so much red ink!” he says. “I haven’t always been the best writer, but I’m improving, that’s for sure.”
Close to home
The REU dormitory, Busby Suites, can be found abuzz with activity in the evenings. The students play volleyball – “we love volleyball!” says Chavis – visit the UConn Dairy Bar, and take weekend trips to Boston and New York, with varying opinions. Although well-traveled Tandjigora considered Boston a “nice little city,” Chavis was preparing to grit his teeth and brave the chaos of a New York trip.
For Jessamyn Ward, who grew up in Connecticut, the experience didn’t have that ring of a new locale. But it was a chance to do something completely new.
The biochemistry major at Central Connecticut State University, who took a year off before college to figure out what she wanted to do, learned about the REU program from her college adviser.
“I was always a science person,” she says. “So I knew I would really like doing research. If research wasn’t for me,” she adds, “I’d learn that really quickly with this program!”
Her favorite part of the program has been learning to think creatively in the lab.
“In the beginning I was just reading a laboratory manual and repeating experiments my mentor had done,” she said. “Then I started to come up with things myself. I thought, am I going to blow something up?” she jokes.
“But then, all of a sudden, you start to feel a little smarter. You’re more independent. You can even consider yourself a chemist.”
Ward also oversaw four high school students who visited her laboratory for three weeks through UConn’s Mentor Connection Program, which pairs talented local high-schoolers with UConn faculty for a summer research experience. Lovingly referring to them as her “minions,” she calls the experience very rewarding.
“I’ve never had to mentor people before, but I think I’m doing an OK job,” she says. “They catch on so quickly and they’re really interested.”
And her one hope is exactly what her advisers think when they look at her.
“I hope they continue to like chemistry!” she says.