Science innovation needs small universities.
While large research institutions hold much of the spotlight for science advancements, small universities also play a crucial role – not only in innovation, but also in developing some of the brightest scientific minds for tomorrow.
Institutions like Converse, where students interact with research professors daily and have opportunities to work collaboratively with them year-round, fill a niche when it comes to cultivating students’ individual interests and aspirations. And here, the undergraduate student research experience often more closely resembles that of a graduate experience.
Last summer, Chemistry professors Dr. Sheri Strickland of Converse and Dr. Ken Shimizu of the University of South Carolina were awarded $100,000 in National Science Foundation funding through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The program supports collaborations among universities to broaden participation in research. The grant enables Strickland to immerse two Converse students in an18-month project to impact medical science by contributing to the development of healthy synthetic tissue. Students at the two schools work on different aspects of the project, with both graduate and undergraduate students participating at USC.
Converse undergraduate students Natacha Karambizi and Victoria Bobo base their research at Converse, and visit USC periodically to conduct reactions in laboratories there. Strickland values the students’ exposure to more expansive lab equipment and to working collaboratively with graduate-level researchers. “It enhances their undergraduate experience. They both want to earn a PhD in chemistry, with Victoria’s interest being in polymer development and Natasha’s in drug discovery and design.”
And yet, the Converse students enjoy a key benefit that is distinctive to the small university environment they choose for their undergraduate experience. “Undergraduate students at large universities have access to the equipment but rarely get the kind of one-on-one access to and relationships with faculty that happen here,” says Strickland. “The goal of collaborations like ours is to provide the best of both.”
“I see students who are curious, who love science and want to become a scientist…develop great scientific minds and gain access to top graduate programs in their field.”
Strickland began cultivating her young apprentices more than a year ago, taking them to the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society (SERMACS) in Atlanta. “I took them for three reasons: First, to see others presenting the kind of research they will present. Second, to attend professional seminars and hear about research being done in different parts of the Southeast. And third, to meet a Converse alumna who is pursuing her PhD in physical chemistry at Georgia Tech – we all had lunch together, which gave Natacha and Victoria the chance to connect with someone doing the very thing that is coming next for them.”
Natacha and Victoria presented their work at an American Chemical Society Meeting at Furman University last April, and will present at the regional meeting in Nashville this coming year. Strickland mentors them through preparation, but steps aside as they take the stage.
The EPSCoR project team will submit several peer-reviewed articles for publication in professional journals after the project concludes, enabling other scientists to apply the group’s discoveries to their own research in this area.
“When I went to graduate school – as is often the case today – it was my first opportunity for the kinds of hands-on and presentation opportunities at that level,“ said Strickland. “Converse students get this experience as undergraduates. The Converse science faculty are working to sustain our summer research program so that stipends are available for students every summer.”
With full teaching loads and management responsibilities for their laboratories, faculty at smaller universities like Converse must also dedicate themselves to the continuous process of researching and applying for grants in order to sustain such a program. Converse faculty members are committed to their vision.
“As a department, we are committed to conducting high quality research and to providing students with research training that will effectively prepare them for a career in the sciences,” notes Dr. Neval Erturk, who serves as chair of the Department of Biology, Chemistry and Physics. “We not only require completion of a research project for graduation, but also incorporate research and scholarly activities into our curriculum. This develops critical thinking, quantitative and scientific reasoning, effective communication skills and information literacy.”
The difference for students is significant. “I see students who are curious, who love science and want to become a scientist – even when standardized test scores may not place them among the most competitive applicants – develop great scientific minds and gain access to top graduate programs in their field, says Erturk. “While academic records do matter, the aptitude for science and the determination to succeed are often the best predictors of success.”
One must look no further than Converse’s 2014 graduating class to see evidence that these students are making a major impact in the world of science. They were accepted into a graduate program in biomedical research at Eastern Kentucky University with tuition waiver and stipend; a PhD program in clinical health psychology at Eastern Carolina University with full funding, an assistantship, and a substantial stipend; pharmacy schools at East Tennessee State, the Medical University of South Carolina and Presbyterian College; physical therapy doctoral programs at Duke University and MUSC; and the marine biology graduate program at the College of Charleston with a teaching assistantship.
Current students are spending their summer as interns at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, MedEx Academy and The Greenville Zoo. They are mentoring girls at a STEM camp in Texas, participating in the Coastal Marine Education and Research Academy, studying sharks and sting rays in the Gulf of Mexico, and doing funded research projects through the South Carolina Independent Colleges & Universities grant program (where Converse students are among the highest funding recipients in the state). Recent graduates have also earned two Goldwater Scholarship honorable mentions in the last few years.