JYI Special Issue: Manuscripts from UCONN's REU in Chemistry

Author:  Heather Mispagel Ganio
Institution:  University of Connecticut
Date:  October 2006

The October 2006 issue of JYI is highlighting the University of Connecticut's (UCONN's) REU program in Chemistry by publishing the following articles:

"Improving Oxepine:Glycal Selectivity in the Ring Closing Metathesis Route to Carbohydrate"

By Charles Schiaffo

"Peptidic Nanoparticles for Repetitive Antigen Display

Expression and Purification of Nanoparticles Carrying an HIV Epitope"

By George Hwang, Markus Meier, Gay Pauline Padilla, Leo Scholl and Peter Burkhard

"Studying pH Dependence of a Peptide Modification with an N-hydroxysuccinimide Ester Using Mass Spectrometry"

By Joe Jankolovits

"Synthesis and Characterization of Well-defined Immiscible Polylactide Block Copolymers and Their Stereocomplexes"

By Jorge Ginorio

REUs: Cure for the Grad School Blues

Are you an undergraduate science student? Do you stress endlessly about post-graduation planning and the hard decisions that come with it, such as whether to pursue a higher degree?

Fear not: you are not alone. Graduate studies are no trivial matter, presenting an enormous challenge that tacks four to six years onto an already lengthy education. Yet they are also a tremendous investment, paving the way to more prestigious, and perhaps more rewarding, jobs.

Unfortunately, sometimes an undergraduate exposure to a subject is just not enough to know whether graduate school is right for you, much less what your research interests are. So, how can a stressed-out science major solve this dilemma?

REU to the Rescue

Enter the Research Experience for Undergraduates, or REU. These summer research programs, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, offer American science students a chance to work full-time in an academic research environment. In the process, the NSF hopes to furnish the scientific community with a new generation of intelligent, well-trained young minds.

No matter what your field of study, be it a natural or social science, there is probably an REU for you. One exemplary program is the Chemistry REU at the University of Connecticut (UConn). Directed by Professor of Chemistry Amy Howell, the REU has been hosting students every year since 1998.

In their interactions with professors and current graduate students, Howell explains, REU students come to understand how real research is done. "The participants get a feel for what it's like to be a graduate student," she says.

Students in this program work for ten full weeks on a research project of their choice within the large Department of Chemistry at UConn. During this time they are exposed to new techniques, practice their critical thinking skills, and perform genuinely significant research.

Cheryl Bourgeois, a past participant in the program and now a graduate student of organometallic synthesis at Dartmouth, speaks to the value of her summer research at UConn. "I had first hand experience [in the REU] with what research and life was like at the graduate level," she says. "This was invaluable in preparing me for graduate school."

"Why should I do an REU?"

Aside from getting a brief taste of grad school, there are many good reasons to participate in an REU.

To start with, the large host departments, aided by NSF funds, can support a broader range of research projects than many students' home universities. Danielle Cleveland, a current graduate student at UConn and a past participant in the Chemistry REU there, attests to this fact.

"The opportunity to work in a large and well-funded research-focused environment, as opposed to the teaching-focused environment of my undergraduate institution, opened my eyes to the wide range of research opportunities available," she explains.

Another bonus is the financial support given to REU participants. The chemistry program at UConn, for instance, provides students with a stipend of $3000 as well as room and board for the full ten weeks.

This is typical of an REU, although the details may vary somewhat from program to program. In any case, you won't have to suffer the economic consequences of turning down that summer job.

Furthermore, Howell explains, an REU may directly aid a student's application to graduate school – in the form of recommendations. "REUs," she says, "give students a chance to interact with [a professor] who can attest to their ability and motivation to do research."

The programs also bolster participants' scientific skills, both in general and with respect to specific techniques. John D'Angelo, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins, benefited in such a way from the UConn chemistry REU. Although his project as an REU student was not closely related to his current area of study, it helped him to improve his scientific communication skills.

"My REU professor," he recalls, "was a presentation buff, and I had the opportunity to do many presentations, although only in group meetings, and I feel that this really helped me hone my skills in becoming an effective communicator."

Most importantly, the programs help students decide how well a higher degree in science would suit them. "Perhaps the greatest benefit of the REU program," says Cleveland, "in addition to landing me my first publication, was that the experience made me realize that I truly enjoy doing research."

"What's special about UConn?"

"The [UConn] chemistry REU is not really a thematic program," explains Howell. "It offers students the opportunity to choose from a variety of projects."

Indeed, participants can conduct research in almost every area of chemistry imaginable, including organic, organometallic, inorganic, polymer, electroanalytical, bioorganic, biophysical, bioinorganic, and physical chemistry. Applicants specify their three favorites from a list of projects, and are almost always paired with one of them.

Each year, a few students also have the chance to present their findings at a regional or national scientific conference. Last year, the entire group attended.

Perhaps a more unique aspect of the UConn REU is the large degree of interaction with students from similar programs at the university, including a pharmacy summer program and REUs in polymer science and electrical engineering.

"There is a real synergy between science students in the different programs," says Howell. Aside from being housed in the same new dorm, students from different programs get together for activities such as an ethics workshop, in which students watch and discuss a series of short, open-ended videos about scientific ethics.

"These videos are vignettes illustrating ethical issues such as falsifying data, not keeping proper records, or deciding authorship on a journal publication, that might be encountered in a laboratory setting," explains Howell. As they work in their labs over the summer, students watch for a situation in which they are faced with an ethical dilemma, and towards the end of the program discuss it in a one-page paper.

But there is more to the REU than work; students kick off the summer with a big barbecue. They later enjoy group activities such as hiking, Red Sox games, and trips to Newport, Rhode Island.

"How can I get in?"

In applying to an REU program, you usually need to provide three components: a personal statement describing your academic interests and goals, two letters of recommendation, and an academic transcript. Applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents between their sophomore and senior year of college.

Before you stress too much about grades: Howell emphasizes that a strong personal statement and recommendations are more important than a stellar GPA. Make sure to request letters from professors who are familiar with the quality of your work and your sincere interest in science as a career.

Still, the application process is fairly selective. According to Howell, the UConn chemistry REU can only accept 12-13 of the 150 applicants each year – all the more reason to make yourself stand out.

You need not worry about having loads of previous lab experience, though. "Prior research is not a necessity," says Howell, "but there has to be evidence in the personal statement that the person has a strong desire, and more importantly, the initiative, to do research." REU staff need to know that you will put forth your best efforts in the program.

Application deadlines usually fall sometime in February or March, so it's a good idea to start assembling application materials over winter break. Make sure to check the individual programs' websites, though, as some schools set a much earlier deadline. Also, notify your professors at least a month before recommendations are due, and keep reminding them – after all, they are busy people, too!

Final Words of Wisdom

In short, Research Experiences for Undergraduates like the program in chemistry at UConn are a great way to see if a career in research is right for you.

"Overall," Cleveland says, "prior to the REU, I was ready to take my B.S. and settle for a job in any industry that would have me. The REU experience acted as a springboard to graduate school, with graduate school ultimately providing the way to more experience, more money, and more numerous and prestigious career choices."

To all those uncertain about their academic future, D'Angelo offers these words of encouragement: "If I could give undergrads advice, based on my experience, it'd be not to worry that they don't know anything.' We all lack knowledge at the beginning of a project, believe it or not, even the professors."

Instead, he says, persistence is the key to success in research: "Drive is infinitely more important than knowledge because the drive will lead you to knowledge."

More information about the UConn chemistry REU, including detailed descriptions of research projects, can be found at web.uconn.edu/chemistry/reu.html.

This, as well as other REU programs, are funded by the National Science Foundation. Links to other REU sites are available on the NSF website (http://www.nsf.gov).