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Summer Research: Better Learning Through Chemistry

Prof. Snyder and her students
Professor Snyder (standing, dark shirt) and her students Anne Elizabeth Mason ’17, Morgan Burch ’17, Erin Xu ’17, Kaley Gonzalez ’17, Shirley Ge ’17, Britany McCall (Livingstone College), Shamus Cooper ’16, Dennis Akrobetu ’17, Anthony Ciancone ’17 and Evan Watkins ’16.

The common wisdom holds that there's no summer school at Davidson. But the second floor of Martin Chemistry Building gives a different impression. Every weekday for 10 summer weeks, 10 students scurry back and forth between labs packed closely with chemical bottles, reference literature, scientific instruments and glassware.

Every summer the Davidson campus is transformed from a traditional classroom-based institution to one in which about 50 students work in close cooperation with professors to explore real-world questions. Most are funded through grants from the Davidson Research Initiative.

The largest group of student researchers are engaged in five basic research projects under the guidance of soon-to-be Associate Professor of Chemistry Nicole Snyder. Their efforts are aimed at synthesizing carbohydrates for therapies to fight various forms of cancer, influenza, tuberculosis and respiratory diseases.

"It's far above my pay grade to talk about developing a cure," said Evan Watkins '17. "But hopefully our work here will help someone else to do so."

Professionally dressed in white lab coats embossed with their names and equipped with safety glasses and purple nitrile gloves, their summer experience of mentored research has a different academic flavor than school year lab work.

Professional Collaboration

The bond between teacher and student grows deeper through summer research. The research isn't graded, which eliminates tension both student and professor can feel in a traditional course. Instead, the mentor serves as a professional collaborator rather than classroom professor. Students learn to work as part of a large group, and develop a real expertise in their field of inquiry.

Snyder's students bring different levels of experience to their lab benches. It's a first exposure for some, while others have worked during the school year on independent study research with her or other faculty members.

Regardless, they all enjoy the different academic flavor of the summer lab experience. "It's a change of pace and different way of learning," said Shirley Ge '17. There's an entire day to make progress and wrestle with problems, rather than just a couple of hours between lunch and dinner. There's also a 5 p.m. quitting time after which students can enjoy socializing.

Ann Elizabeth Mason '17 is the self-appointed social chair of the group. "We've had a good time so far!" she offered. Their group activities include trivia on Monday evenings, and watching "Game of Thrones." They've also had outings for rock climbing, bowling, a baseball game and boating on Lake Norman.

Snyder promotes their togetherness by joining in some of the outings, and by arranging for a group photo to commemorate their time in lab together. This summer's snapshot joins the many she has accumulated during her eight years of teaching.

Deeper Sense of Ownership

Students also develop a deeper sense of ownership for their work during the summer. Shamus Cooper '16 worked with Snyder during the past spring semester on an independent study project that's continuing over the summer. He said, "During the school year I wanted to get a good grade on the independent study. Now we've got a chance to publish it, too. I want that publication. I don't want someone else to take over our work."

Dennis Akrobetu '17
Dennis Akrobetu '17

Summer research can give students valuable experience and guidance toward graduate study and careers. As Snyder learns student's strengths and interests, she gives them advice on their school year course selections and post-graduate plans. Cooper said he and Snyder have discussed his future several times, and his opinions on chemistry have changed through the summer experience. "I always thought I'd hate lab work, but I've found I like it," he said.

He has also developed a deep respect for his mentor. "I want to work hard and make her proud. She's an organic chemistry genius," he said.

Most of the students in Snyder's lab aspire to attend medical school. "I'm math/science all the way," said Watkins. "I like the problem solving aspect of things. I've got to take an English class in the fall and I'm a little nervous about that," he joked.

Ann Elizabeth Mason, the social director, isn't quite so certain of her post-graduate plans. But the lab experience is proving valuable in work toward her public health major through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. Her thesis there will examine the scientific, economic and social aspects of diseases passed from mother to child in underdeveloped countries of Africa. The summer research experience is boosting her confidence and skill in the scientific aspect of her thesis. "I was never very good in the lab," she said. "But this experience has really boosted my skill level and confidence."

Future physician Anthony Ciancone '17 applied to work on the project for personal reasons. "I've always wanted to be a cancer researcher," he said. "A lot of my family members have had cancer, and I'd like to help."

Students Earn Publications Credit

This summer's research might also yield one or two original research papers. In her three years at Davidson, Snyder has employed 25 summer research students, and four have been co-authors on published journal articles or book chapters. Three other students are listed on manuscripts under revision. All the DRI students create a poster explaining their projects. Those are put on display for the rest of the campus community at a poster fair in the fall, and they will also be presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society next spring.

Keeping 10 students on track as they work on different projects is a challenge. Prof. Snyder initially meets it by practicing "management by note cards." Throughout the work day she shuttles between labs and her office, checking on progress and answering questions. By the end of the day she's got a pretty good idea of everyone's progress. As the day concludes and the students leave, she hand-writes on note cards each students' research goals for the next day, and presents the cards to the students as they file in the next morning.

"It's like training wheels for students who haven't had previous research experience," Snyder said. The system is especially important during the first half of the experience. As students learn more about their work they are able to manage their projects with less supervision from Snyder and more help from their peers. Eventually, they learn to write their own notecards and establish their own daily goals.

Try, Try Again!

Morgan Burch '17
Morgan Burch '17 at her station.

Other important lessons of summer research are that learning results from failure as easily as success, and that patience is a necessary virtue. Chemical reactions can take days to occur, or simply not work and require a do-over from scratch. Students might need to wait for a solution to achieve the right temperature, wait on others to finish using an instrument, and there's always the tedious task of scrubbing glassware for reuse. Watkins observed, "The waiting around part isn't the most fun, but it's part of the process."

Shirley Ge '17, who is working on a therapy for one particular strain of the many-strained Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, had hoped to be further along in her project. Unfortunately, several setbacks required her to restart her research project three weeks into the summer. But she's taking a philosophical approach to her situation. "An alumnus told me, ‘That's why they call it re-search, because you end up doing it over and over again!'"

Snyder wants her students to "think bigger" than just their Davidson lab. The current summer research is part of several national and international collaborative efforts. The molecules created in the Davidson lab have been or will eventually be shipped to researchers at the University of South Carolina, UNC Charlotte, the Fungal Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, McGill University in Canada and Heinrich Heine University in Germany.

She also spent a sabbatical year from 2010-2011 in a lab at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, and over two summers took five students from her former post at Hamilton College to conduct research with her there. Now she wants to do the same with Davidson students.

Next summer she will travel with two or three of this summer's cadre to Heinrich Heine University in Duesseldorf to work there. "Being able to take them there to see how research is conducted in an international environment will be great," she said. "There's also a lot of chemistry history in Germany that I'd like them to see."

Long-term she would like to establish an annual summer research exchange program between Davidson and Duesseldorf. "A lot of chemistry students don't feel like they can manage study abroad because of the number of courses they need to take to be competitive for medical school or graduate school, but a summer research exchange program would give them that opportunity," she said.