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Pursuing Research at ODU this Summer to Forge a Path in the Sciences

By Tiffany Whitfield

For four summers, a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program has brought together nearly a dozen of students each year from various community colleges across the country to Old Dominion University's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. REU participants discovered how Monarchs faculty and graduate students are leaders in their fields while gaining valuable hands-on access to research.

During the summer of 2022, ten students from Tidewater Community College, Virginia Peninsula Community College, John Tyler Community College, Rappahannock Community College, Virginia Highlands Community College, Southside Virginia Community College, Motlow State Community College (Tennessee), and Johnson County Community College (Kansas) did research alongside ODU faculty inside labs at ODU's New Chemistry Building. For most of the students in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry's REU program, this was their first experience with any sort of research and will provide them a better understanding of what a study or career in research entails.

For two REU chemistry and biochemistry participants, Jennifer Burdette and Savion Adams, getting hands-on experience along with one-on-one mentoring has been a game changer. All of the budding researchers were paired with ODU chemistry/biochemistry faculty who helped them along this 10-week journey by working inside of pristine and spacious labs with the guidance of ODU graduate students.

Burdette was mentored by ODU's Assistant Professor Kyle Lambert, Ph.D. Prior to completing her associates degree from Tidewater Community College, Burdette's TCC professor encouraged her to apply to ODU's REU in Chemistry and Biochemistry. This summer was Burdette's first time conducting independent research. "Everything looks so nice and new in the new chemistry building," said Burdette. "The techniques are the same, but there are a lot more instruments here." During the first half of the program Burdette has strengthened her laboratory skills and prepared a set of compounds never before made and along the way learned how to identify and characterize them. Burdette has enjoyed her time in the REU program at ODU this summer and she has applied to ODU's undergraduate program for this fall.

"I would say one of the unique aspects of the chemistry and biochemistry REU program here at ODU is that it is geared towards providing opportunities to students from smaller programs and community colleges to participate in hands-on research, which they may not have otherwise been able to participate in because their home programs may not have the research infrastructure to allow for it," said Lambert.

Collaboration has been instrumental along the way in this REU program. For instance, Lambert mentored Burdette who happened to be working with another cohort, Savion Adams. Burdette's research project this summer involved developing compounds with new motifs to target bacterial infections and is part of a collaboration with Assistant Professor Erin Purcell's lab where Savion Adams, her REU student, conducted the biological testing of the compounds.

Adams is currently a student at Southside Community College in Emporia, Virginia and is expected to receive his associates degree in May 2023. Doing research with his mentor, Assistant Professor Erin Purcell, Ph.D., has been invaluable. "It's definitely an interesting experience and she encouraged me to ask questions and she was really nice about answering my questions," said Adams. "This experience has given me a pretty good general sense of what it's like to be in a lab setting and running experiments where you don't know the end result and really makes me appreciate the process." Over time Adams has expanded his depth of research to running tests to gaining insight into the determination required as part of research. Adams would like to work in the field toxicology, and the work he's been doing at ODU's Chemistry and Biochemistry REU is helping him get one step closer to that goal.

"When it comes to pursuing research opportunities that's always a really big asset, Savion has demonstrated that he has good lab hands," said Purcell. "One thing I've noticed in working with REU students, and it's really been mutually beneficial for me and the graduate students, is that this process forces us to clarify our thinking about how to best the mentor new researchers."

All of the REU students spent hours in the labs, running experiments, learning how to use new equipment, and working one-on-one with their mentors and graduate students to build up the confidence as new scientists. Students worked in a number of different fields within the chemical sciences, synthesizing new compounds, learning to work safely with bacteria and analyzing environmental samples.

According to Craig Bayse, Ph.D., professor and chair of ODU's department of chemistry and biochemistry and director of the program: "Our NSF-REU site is an excellent opportunity for community college students to gain real-life experience working with faculty and graduate students. Additionally, we help them prepare for the workforce through professional development workshops and field trips to local industry. Our success rate for the program is excellent with almost all students transferring to a 4-year degree program and many co-authoring scientific articles with their mentors."

Most of the REU students have plans to move on to larger four-year undergraduate programs and/or graduate and professional schools following their summer experience. Each and every assignment they accomplished during the REU program has helped students acquire valuable writing, presentation, collaboration, and time management skills that will help them succeed in their future endeavors.

More information on the ODU Chemistry and Biochemistry REU site can be found at odureusites.org/chem.