Chemistry maintains undergrad research program amid pandemic

· 5 min read

Chemistry maintains undergrad research program amid pandemic

Husker chemists among small fraction continuing to offer NSF-funded experience
A Zoom meeting hosted by Nebraska's Mark Griep (top, center) and attended by students participating in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

As a chemist, Nebraska’s Mark Griep understands better than most how introducing a highly reactive element into a stable environment can fundamentally alter it, sometimes with destructive results.

In early March, Griep and the Department of Chemistry were just finalizing the roster of students who would visit the University of Nebraska–Lincoln for the 10-week Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. With little warning, the epidemiological equivalent of reactivity — infectivity — threatened to upend what has become a summer tradition at Nebraska.

“That’s around the time when the word started coming out that we were going to shut down,” said the professor of chemistry, who has coordinated the department’s REU for eight years running. “And I made the sad decision, with everybody else, that we couldn’t do this.”

A coronavirus-driven cancelation would have deprived undergraduate students from smaller institutions — including Oklahoma City University, Queensborough Community College and Truman State University — of a rare opportunity at a Research I university. The National Science Foundation initiated the program specifically to help undergrads progress from textbook learning to lab-based research, giving them a brief but valuable preview of how that research actually operates. Few saw a way forward amid the emerging pandemic.

But Catherine Eichhorn, an assistant professor of chemistry who researches how dysfunctions in cellular machinery contribute to disease, thought the computational modeling inherent in her work presented an opening.

“She said, ‘I could come up with a fully remote experience. Can I still have my student?’ And I said, ‘Well, that works for me,’” Griep said.

Seven other Husker chemistry faculty soon followed suit, finding ways to adapt their own planned lab-based experiences. Their efforts have allowed eight of the original 14 undergrads to maintain at least a semblance of their REUs, which began June 1. According to an NSF administrator who helps helm the nationwide network of chemistry REUs, only about 10 of the 60 participating institutions have managed to continue their programs in any form this summer. And based on Griep’s conversations with counterparts at those institutions, few of the others have maintained their REUs for more than a single student.

“What I heard was that of the other nine, it’s pretty much one student at each of those places,” he said. “I think there are only two programs with more than three: Nebraska and the University of Minnesota.”

The students’ experiences, of course, aren’t exactly what they would have been. In a typical year, the visiting undergrads would have toured the university by walking its grounds. They would have donned lab coats and goggles, conducting experiments with equipment unavailable at their own institutions. They would have spent more time together, developing camaraderie and even friendships. Many of those aspects can’t really be replicated remotely, Griep said.

Even in the absence of an in-lab experience, though, Griep said the Husker faculty are giving their summer researchers a crash course in analytical and technical skills that should prove useful long after this summer’s REU concludes. A student working with Associate Professor Barry Chin Li Cheung, for instance, is helping model interactions among carbon dioxide and certain hydrogen-covered surfaces, part of Cheung’s long-term aim to better attract and transform carbon dioxide residing in the atmosphere. Assistant Professor Alena Moon is having her student analyze interviews designed to reveal how students think about interactions between light and matter.

The fact that most of the participating chemistry faculty are relatively new to the university themselves — and still rounding out the lab personnel who would normally have shouldered some of the REU burden — makes their efforts all the more impressive, Griep said.

“So the faculty adviser is basically helping everybody do everything,” he said. “I’m sure it’s a lot of work.”

Other aspects of the experience have remained mostly intact, Griep said, albeit in a modified form. Participating students usually work toward a program-wrapping poster presentation that tests the science communication skills that Griep has a special interest in cultivating. The physical posters may be gone, but narration-laden videos will be replacing them. The students will still be judged on three criteria: their visuals, their oral presentation and their responses during a Q&A. And they will still be both collaborating and competing with one another for stipends to national research meetings.

“I love seeing how they come in with certain expectations about what science is, and then getting them to grapple with, ‘This is your idea now. I want you to communicate this to me,’” Griep said. “Even though I’m a biochemist, and I do know a lot of different stuff, I want them to think, ‘How am I going to communicate this with the public?’ Not just me — other scientists. How are you going to talk about molecules with people who aren’t chemists?”

As much as the pandemic has altered the experiment-heavy nature of a typical REU, Griep said it has, in a sense, at least offered a chance to experiment with and hone the program itself.

“It’s really about getting them to think about ideas, and to own the ideas that they think about,” he said. “I’ve been working on that approach for the past two, three years. This is actually a good moment for us to test that.”

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