by Burt Hollandsworth, Past YCC Member (2009)
Undergraduate research in the chemical sciences has quickly become a requirement in chemistry departments at many colleges and universities. Even at predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUI’s) most science majors complete at least a semester of independent research a part of the requirements in their major field of study. Undergraduates are typically unable to design and complete a research project without considerable input and guidance from a knowledgeable faculty member. Many faculty members will find themselves advising several student research projects each semester. This article provides just a few suggestions for busy professors who are thinking of taking on a few undergraduate research students.
1. Undergraduates are short on free time. Many faculty members forget that studious undergraduates have very little time for research. Undergraduates, unlike graduate students, take a full course load each semester. Unless you are lucky enough to have an undergraduate working during the summer, their coursework will demand the majority of their time. Even if the research project is taken for course credit, the undergraduate is likely to underestimate the weekly time commitment. Be intentional with undergraduates about the time it will take to see a project through to the end. Include estimates of the time it will take to write up the results at the end of the project. Under no circumstances should you allow a student to “try” to squeeze research into their “free time.” This will likely mean that the student starts the project and then ditches it when their other work becomes too demanding, leading to both a frustrated advisor and research student.
2. Make a timeline. Many granting agencies now require that applications include a timeline of work to be attempted. Timelines help to keep the project on track in the busy times when it is easy to put student research projects on the back burner. At the beginning of the project, sit down and create a rough timeline of work to be completed. A typical timeline might look like this.
3. Safety Training. In chemical research, safety must be the highest priority. Students can be severely injured if they attempt to perform research that is beyond their capabilities or research for which they have not been properly trained. This is especially true when undergraduates are mixed in with graduate students and they attempt to mimic or copy what the graduates are doing. Train each undergraduate individually in the skills they will need to conduct their planned research. This is a time investment that will be rewarded with peace of mind.
Carefully train each student on the proper transfer of toxic or pyrophoric reactants and on the proper use of syringes and other sharp objects. Undergraduates are often guilty of heating closed systems, turning up the heat up too high on reflux reactions, adding higher than acceptable pressures of gas to flasks, and failing to use the proper safety equipment. Train students how to transport pressurized gas bottles and attach and detach gas regulators (with very careful attention to flammable gases). Students and faculty need to wear eye protection at all times in the laboratory. This includes time spent in the laboratory writing observations in a notebook or doing calculations. Unless the research is conducted in an office setting, safety glasses or goggles need to be on. Train students to use proper gloves that are appropriate for the chemicals being used in their research. Try to anticipate safety mistakes and caution the student ahead of time.
4. Make room for creativity. Overeager faculty members will often feel pressured, sometimes by their own research students, to come up with ideas that are guaranteed to work. This may lead to a faculty member micromanaging the student’s project to ensure a certain quality or level of results. Good undergraduate research should focus less on results and more on learning the process of scientific inquiry. Undergraduates should be given the freedom to make a few wrong decisions. The mistakes made in undergraduate research will save time when the student moves on to a job or to graduate school. Let the students pursue an interesting side product, or suggest their own experiments. Give the student some time to try shortcuts that you know might fail. Sometimes the most important lesson a student takes away from undergraduate research is that shortcuts might waste more time than they save.
5. Actively engage the student in scientific writing. At the end of a busy semester or summer of research, the last thing a student wants to do is to stop the interesting chemistry that probably just started working properly, to start writing a report. Often this task is so overwhelming that the student balks and turns in a hastily thrown together paper typed up during their final exam week. Urge the students to keep a good research notebook and to begin writing their experimental procedures as soon as they have each new experimental method. Give them examples of experimental sections from real manuscripts or journal articles.
Remember that scientific writing is an iterative process. Most chemists do not sit down and bang out the final version of a manuscript on the first try. Have the student send their writing in small sections. Edit the section and ask them to send it back in a few days. Edit again and again until the writing flows seamlessly from one topic to the next. Many undergraduates have developed a habit of writing in first person tense. Most have little to no ability to write a short abstract and conclusion that would give the major results of the project at a glance. Students may not know what spectra, graphs, and tables to include. Spend a reasonable amount of time teaching them the right way to write a research report. Solicit a colleague to critique the student’s writing and pass their comments on to the students. Again, the goal is not necessarily be publication quality work. However students should always finish as better scientific writers than they began.
6. Teach courtesy and integrity. One of the most important research lessons for younger chemists is to treat others in shared lab space with courtesy. Don’t let your student get away with keeping a messy lab or otherwise bothering other students and faculty. Ensure that they share resources such as instruments, chemicals, and bench and hood space. Young scientists also need to learn to be good listeners and make useful comments on the work of others. Encourage them to talk with other students and share ideas. Hold group meetings with other undergraduates and give each student a turn to describe their work or teach others about an interesting journal article. Finally, encourage your student to cite the literature correctly. Tell them that they should “Give credit where credit is due.” and ensure them that others will do the same. Never let a student slide by with using a copyrighted figure, scheme, or table in their own reports. Call them out in these situations and make them properly reference any published information. Early training in professional courtesy and integrity will train the students to be good citizens of the global scientific community.
Enjoy the opportunities that you have to guide undergraduates in meaningful research projects. Share your positive experiences with your departmental colleagues and with other faculty at meetings. Encourage those around you to train young scientists in research and to send them to their next destination with research skills that will last a lifetime.
Dr. Hollandsworth graduated in 1999 with a B.S. in chemistry from Roanoke College in Salem, VA. He graduated in 2004 from The Ohio State University with a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry and currently teaches at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.
Andrew Cottone, III Ph. D.
27 McCullough Drive, Dew Castle, DE 19709
Recent news about chemists, especially those in the pharmaceutical industry, and R&D trends in the United States have left morale of chemists at perhaps an all-time low. R&D Chemistry has seemingly been transformed into a commodity-like platform. Yet, some domestic companies are bucking this trend. While local governments and universities are attempting to facilitate conversion of academic ideas into real-life applications, the mentoring and funding mechanisms for entrepreneurial entities are still inadequate. Adesis is an example of a domestic company that is bucking this trend. In addition to providing high-quality chemistry services, Adesis also provides novel building blocks amenable for medicinal chemistry applications. Many of these building blocks, available in large quantities, are new compositions of matter for future drugs. During this journey, we have answered questions about how to generate funding for our Research (VC, bank, services), hired highly talented domestic chemists who were laid-off from the Big Pharma, and contributed to the synthesis of future drugs. In 2004–05, Adesis formed, via a senior management leverage buyout, with the above goals in mind, and the challenges faced (recession, completion from emerging markets, empty pipelines) were daunting.
Forming a high-tech company, especially a Chemistry CRO (Contract Research Organization), to be cash-positive from the start while competing against low-cost labor and lax foreign environmental oversight is arduous. The first order of business is to generate a sound business plan and then secure funding (VC, Angel funds, self-funding), join with honest partners, and hire talented people who are highly effective problem solvers. Adesis was initially funded by equity from the partners’ personal homes.
Adesis has succeeded and has nearly tripled in size since its inception. Several factors contributed to this growth: i) commitment of strong partners, ii) hiring a strong team, iii) rapid decision making, iv) collaborations across science and business; and v) hiring people with strong emphasis on work ethic and integrity. A short discussion on each point is below:
Strong founding partners are important because they bring professional connections, different perspectives, and experiences to bear. Such an undertaking is difficult to complete alone. Committing three people to one goal allows for greater growth if the owners work cooperatively.
Strong team members are required to augment the founders. The arrogance to think one “knows it all” is often a kiss of death for any entrepreneurial company. A company is stronger if it can value and trust the input from all levels of the organization.
Rapid decision making, including parallel processing, is important in the current business environment. A slow decision costs time and money, which are scarce commodities in this economy. We are not just talking about the progression of ongoing projects but also response to potential clients. If a project cannot be completed technically at Adesis, we will inform the client quickly. However, we can provide value to potential clients with other options.
Collaborations are especially important for small companies. These relationships can augment other companies’ skill sets against one’s weaknesses, and vice versa. For small companies it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to stay isolated and independent. Incidentally, these relationships are not just limited to other technology companies. For Adesis, it has been extremely valuable to protect IP and pursue trade secret and tort litigation with a trustworthy team of attorneys, manage cash flow with bankers, and forge contacts with other ancillary businesses.
The single most important factor contributing to the success of Adesis is the ethics and integrity of the staff. The above traits are all important but can be taught or can evolve over time. However, individual honesty and integrity must be present at the start. These traits are essential for cohesive teamwork and ultimately greater productivity and a better work place experience.
In conclusion, Adesis employs many chemists from post-docs and former industrial organizations for common goals. We have identified a method to fund our future IP with chemistry services. Our catalog now lists 1,000+ intermediates, and most would not be available today to the synthetic chemistry community without Adesis. The take-home point is that our Adesis senior management learned the hard way before our formation that trust and integrity among owners and employees and throughout our organization are integral to our continuing successes.
Dr. Cottone began his career in chemistry with CB Research and Development. This work focused on early stage process development and scale-up chemistry for the CB Catalog of Advanced Intermediates. Dr. Cottone then became one of the founders of Adesis, Inc. He holds an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and Biochemistry from LaSalle University, and a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Florida, with a post-doctoral experience at the University of Delaware. His doctoral research experience on substrate-metal complex interactions has provided insights into new reactions for preparative scale functionalization of azoles. He is the Vice-President of Chemistry for Adesis. Dr. Cottone has been a member of the Board of Directors for the Delaware Bioscience Association since 2007.
by Stefan G. Koenig, Ph.D.
In January, I had the privilege of participating in the American Chemical Society’s 2010 Leadership Development Institute (LDI) in Fort Worth, TX. The invitation to partake in the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC) Leadership Development Workshop afforded me a glimpse into the efforts ACS officials make on behalf of their membership and the chemistry enterprise as a whole. The number of programs available to the benefit of members is substantial and many are geared toward adapting members to a changing global marketplace by growing their leadership capabilities. Given the current economic realities, chemists should consider these training opportunities when contemplating volunteer roles and professional development.
The history of ACS training programs dates back 45 years and has evolved to more effectively coordinate Society activities. In recent years, local, regional, and national officers – the vast majority of whom are volunteers with full-time careers – have gathered at LDI to discuss how best to serve the membership. For 2010, this event focused on creating successful leaders by enhancing management and communication skills, demonstrating the value of volunteerism to employers, and sharing best practices. The weekend included networking events, coaching in organizational skills, and keynote lectures by the ACS presidential succession.
A newly created Leadership Development System (www.acs.org/leaderdevelopment) offers a curriculum for vocational and volunteer advancement. This comprehensive set of 17 courses is available at scheduled local, regional, and national gatherings or in a self-paced format online, anytime. Importantly, members benefit from taking courses at a discounted rate. Seven of the modules are of the online variety; the remaining ten are composed of 4-hour facilitated sessions and one advanced 8-hour capstone course. “The Extraordinary Leader” class, based on research by John H. Zenger and Joseph Folkman in a book of the same title, addresses key findings: (1) leaders can, in fact, be created and (2) superior ones make an enormous difference, while (3) building strengths and (4) fixing flaws are critical.
The Younger Chemists Committee was created by ACS to address the particular needs of early-stage chemists, with a vision to foster successful careers as well as active roles within the Society. Since 2002, YCC has selected a group of promising chemists, 35 years and younger, for the Leadership Development Award. Participants invited to attend the LDI explore the attributes of effective leaders, learn how to become part of the ACS hierarchy, and network with current officers. This is an exciting window into the mechanism by which representatives develop the Society. Interested individuals need a letter of support for their application.
ACS is a congressionally chartered, non-profit organization with a mission “to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people” and a vision to improve “people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.” It recognizes the evolving global chemical enterprise and, as the largest scientific society, is an authority for chemistry-related professions in the U.S. and around the world. By providing leadership training opportunities, ACS encourages members to adapt to changing times by updating their skill sets. Pursuing this available training, participating in Society volunteer roles, and using our voices to give the chemist’s perspective on pertinent social, political, and business matters, will further ensure that the chemical sciences remain relevant and respected.
Stefan G. Koenig received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Providence College and completed his Ph.D. at Yale University developing a transient-linkage Pauson-Khand cyclisation strategy to the marine natural product palau’amine. Subsequently, he pursued post-doctoral research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology / ETH (Zurich, Switzerland) developing a scalable process toward a stable analog of guanofosfocin, a significant antifungal.
He started his industrial career with Sepracor Process Research & Development, where his contributions have ranged from route scouting to API manufacture. His specific interests include uncovering robust, scalable, and cost-effective chemical processes that are also environmentally friendly. He is an avid supporter of sustainability initiatives, particularly in pharmaceutical API discovery and production, and has become a strong proponent of green chemistry and engineering principles.