Roanoke College

Putting Classroom Knowledge to Work

  • Putting Classroom Knowledge to Work

  • 03/18/08
  • As a freshman at Roanoke College, Samantha Strickland '08 already knew she wanted to major in biochemistry and eventually pursue a Ph.D. Knowing that graduate schools look favorably on applicants with undergraduate research experiences, Strickland began seeking opportunities to engage in laboratory research during that first year. In doing so, the now-senior biochemistry major has not only given herself a competitive edge on her graduate school applications, but also developed some ideas about what areas of research she might pursue later in her career.

    "The fact that I started [doing research] before I went to graduate school gave me a little perspective ahead of time, before I needed to start a career in research," says Strickland, of Powhatan, Va. "It gave me some perspective on what I could be doing and gave me a better feel for the laboratory environment."

    While most chemistry majors at Roanoke College have the opportunity to engage in independent research throughout the academic year, a small, select number are invited to spend the summer immersed in their projects, free from the added responsibility of coursework, tests and extracurricular activities. Supported by a stipend from the chemistry department's Bondurant Fund, these students become full-time researchers, applying the concepts and techniques learned in the classroom and receiving one-on-one attention from a faculty adviser.

    As a Bondurant Scholar last summer, Strickland carried out research that was part of a long-term project for her adviser, assistant professor Dr. Catherine Sarisky. They studied the functions of the enzymes of microscopic organisms called archaea, which live under extreme temperatures, including the geysers of Yellowstone Park and the rift vents in the deep sea. Strickland's project involved taking the enzymes, experimentally characterizing them and performing experiments to see whether they would undergo purine biosynthesis reactions.

    In the end, Strickland was not able to make any definitive conclusions. But negative results in research, while often disappointing, do teach valuable lessons, she says.

    "With research, you always get results-they're just not always positive results," says Strickland, whose summer research helped her land a valuable internship at nearby NovozymesBiologicals Inc. "They're still results, and they're still telling you something. You've got to get used to these ups and downs."

    Sarisky agrees, adding that allowing students to conduct independent research enhances their skills in project management and problem solving. In the teaching laboratories, Sarisky explains, experiments usually render positive results because they are designed to demonstrate concepts learned in the classroom. With individual projects, however, students have to figure out the procedures for performing experiments. And first attempts don't always work, so students have to keep tweaking their methods and keep trying.

    "We can have some general protocols for doing experiments, but figuring out how to apply them on a specific project is much more open-ended," Sarisky says. "That gave Samantha a chance to do some problem solving and grow in managing a larger, open-ended project."

    The Bondurant Fund was established in the early 1980s to honor Dr. Charles Bondurant, former long-time chair of the College's chemistry department. Bondurant, whose contributions to the department include overseeing the process of earning its accreditation from the American Chemical Society, believed undergraduate students should be involved in laboratory research, says Dr. Benjamin Huddle, former chair of the chemistry department, who was hired by Bondurant.

    "Charles Bondurant was a strong proponent of student research," Huddle recalls. "In fact, he may have been, at the time, the strongest proponent of student research. He was sort
    of visionary."

    The endowed fund supports about four students each summer, giving them each a $2,500 stipend and a free room on campus to engage in 10 weeks of full-time research. In return, the students are expected to write a research paper and present an oral defense to the chemistry department faculty. Additionally, they are required to participate in a poster session held each September on campus during Family Weekend. Students also are encouraged to present their work at off-campus meetings, says Dr. Gail Steehler, chair of the chemistry department. This spring, six chemistry students will travel to New Orleans to a meeting of the American Chemical Society - some were supported by the Bondurant Fund and others by the Summer Scholar Program.

    "We think this traveling to professional meetings is an important piece of the whole research experience," Steehler says. "It's sort of the bow at the end, bringing it full circle."

    A leader in establishing the Bondurant Fund was Roanoke College alumnus Dr. Charles "Hap" Fisher '28, who enjoyed a successful career as a research chemist for the federal government before "retiring" and returning to his alma mater as an outstanding adjunct research professor. Driven by the belief that "research - providing new and valuable knowledge - would be the best way to benefit humankind," Fisher, who turned 101 last fall, provided generous support for the fund during the past two decades.

    "I think that science is important, and I think that research is important," said Fisher, the holder of 72 patents in the fields of organic and polymer chemistry. "One good way for students to develop an interest in and a knowledge of science is to do research."

    Other chemistry projects supported by the Bondurant Fund include "Thermodynamic Properties of Amino Acids" by Alissa Gadpaille '08 working with Dr. Huddle; "Chemical Analysis of Soil" by Ashleigh Huggard '08 working with Dr. Jack Steehler, and "Synthesis of Hematite in the Presence and Absence of Water" by Rachel Vanderslice '08 working with Dr. Huddle.

    Another 2007 Bondurant Scholar, Nick Kuchenbuch '09, a junior from Floyd, Va., worked with professor Jack Steehler on researching the effects of acid rain on limestone and determining what could be used to protect limestone surfaces. Their research over the summer entailed making simulated limestone from different ratios and concentrations of calcium chloride and sodium carbonate. They used Surface Plasmon Resonance Spectroscopy to monitor the surfaces.

    Kuchenbuch, who is a chemistry major, had taken a course with Dr. Steehler his freshman year and really enjoyed their summer research.

    "Basically he brought me into the lab, showed me what to do and how to do it, but then he let me do it," Kuchenbuch says. "He was there, but he would let me do the work, and if I had a problem, he'd step in and assist."

    The experience prompted the junior to take another course with Steehler the following fall and has him thinking seriously about a career in research. None of that surprises Steehler, who has been working with Bondurant Scholars for 20 years.

    "Research projects such as those supported by the Bondurant program are the absolute best scientific training that we can provide," Steehler says. "Independent study projects put classroom learning into a real context and show students what their future careers will be like."

    By engaging in full-time research during the summer, Roanoke students get a glimpse of what to expect in graduate school, where research is a key component of all science programs, Sarisky says. They will be able to make informed decisions about whether they want to pursue graduate school. Additionally, by immersing themselves in research, students gain confidence in their scholarly abilities.

    "It really lets them be chemists," Gail Steehler says. "They get to go into the lab and do real chemical research. They also become experts in something, and students don't usually get that opportunity. By the time students finish their projects, they can be experts in that field, and that's extremely empowering."

    Contrary to the popular fiction image of the mad scientist mixing chemical concoctions alone in a laboratory, Steehler says scientists are collaborative creatures who thrive on working together. For faculty advisers, working one-on-one with students simply creates more opportunities for them to practice the chemistry they love while watching their students "come alive" doing research, she says. Most important, the Bondurant Fund creates a community of scholars that includes both students and faculty, making discoveries as colleagues.

    "It's fun to see kids accomplish something and learn something that no one else has ever learned before-that's a joy," Huddle says. "I think for us at Roanoke College, it's more of a joy than discovering those things ourselves, and that's probably why we're here."