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The Ties That Bind

by Erin Negley

A study published by associate professor Christian Hamann, Ph.D., in the Journal of Chemical Education connects students who graduated years apart.

The research lab Sherri Young ’07 walked into at Albright was kind of like the “CSI ” episodes that made her dream about a career in forensic chemistry.

Common teaching lab experiments have predetermined outcomes, but in the research lab, it was up to her to troubleshoot. The outcomes were unpredictable. Young was hooked.

“I realized that I did enjoy investigating new problems. Even the challenges that come along with research, all the failures, I didn’t mind them,” she says. “And it was so incredibly rewarding when a problem that you were working on got resolved finally.

“That was kind of a preview of graduate school for me, and had I not had that experience, I don’t know if I would have stuck with it and ended up ultimately pursuing grad school,” she says.

Young went on to earn a doctorate in organic and medicinal chemistry from Lehigh University and now leads her own research program at Muhlenberg College. There, her students study new ways drugs can treat central nervous system diseases like Alzheimer’s.

In her classroom at Muhlenberg, Young emulates her mentors at Albright, who encouraged her to sign up for that first independent research project. She remembers what it was like to work in the lab with faculty members, where students like her build their confidence as chemists and boost their communication skills by helping research and write papers (a rarity at the undergraduate level) and present at professional meetings.

A recent study published in the Journal of Chemical Education from Christian Hamann, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and several former Albright students is the latest example of this in action.

By senior year, Hamann says, chemistry and biochemistry students at Albright have 500 to 600 hours of lab work under their belts through coursework. There’s no additional research requirement.

“You can be a perfectly productive and happy chemist having never done an undergraduate research project,” he says. But the vast majority of students in the department do some type of research through a combination of independent studies, senior theses, the Albright Creative Research Experience (ACRE ) program and outside internships, he says.

Research gives students the chance to learn something new, become more comfortable in a lab and figure out if this is the kind of work they want to pursue. For those heading to graduate school, it’s a great foundation and head start.

Albright professors select a few students at a time to join their research. Hamann, for example, focuses on the chemistry of flavors and fragrances as well as nuclear magnetic resonance analysis of structure-function relationships. He is also developing teaching tools like lesson plans and lab experiments on those topics.

Students working with him have studied how to do things like identify patterns in molecules, make predictions, and then test them using Albright’s NMR spectrometers. They’ve mapped chemical pathways of products. They’ve synthesized chemicals and molecules for experiments in the Science Center.

The experiments stretch over more than a decade, connecting students who never even studied together or were on campus at the same time.

Young was the first student who worked on the NMR research. She has since given professional presentations, written a book chapter, and authored and co-authored several papers on the topic along with alumnus Jim DeBlasio ’07.

“Sitting in a classroom, taking tests and learning is one thing,” says DeBlasio. “Having that foundation to almost being able to create something new takes it to another level.”

DeBlasio is now a quality control lab supervisor with Johnson Matthey, a specialty chemicals company, and works with the NMR equipment he was introduced to at Albright.

More recently, Kyle Smith ’13 revalidated Young and DeBlasio’s work, and then turned it into a teaching tool with Hamann’s help. He’s also authored several papers from his undergraduate work and presented at international conferences.

Smith’s research combined two of his passions: chemistry and teaching. Since graduation, Smith has earned a master’s in organic chemistry and is now pursuing an industry job before going back to school for an education degree to teach at the high school level.

At Albright he taught the technique he researched and could see the moment when students got the concept.

“Out of all of the things I accomplished at Albright, the degree, the honors, everything, that was the most rewarding for me,” says Smith, a Eugene L. Shirk Scholar. “Seeing my work reach a level of being used in the undergraduate class and seeing students benefit because of it.”

Professors like Hamann can see the same transformation in their students who take the extra time for research.

“They develop in ways that neither you nor the student could have expected,” Hamann says. “They grow in ways that are just fantastic. And you have the front-row seat.”

As his students learn, they start to challenge him, which is healthy and helpful. “Education, like any other relationship, prospers not when it lies fallow but when it’s challenged and strengthened,” he says.

Many of these relationships don’t end after graduation.

“He’s someone that if I have questions, I lean on still,” Smith says of Hamann. “Even in the process of my decision to finish with the master’s and get back into education, he was one of the main people that I spoke with, very often daily.”

Young still contacts Hamann monthly for advice on topics like her career. “I like to say, my job is to create potential colleagues,” Hamann says.

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