You Will Never Know Never You Ask: Undergraduate Research in Chemistry Education

by William Marmor, Rochester Institute of Technology

An Unexpected Beginning
So many people wonder how the influential and prestigious men and women of the world end up where they are today. Who would not want to be successful and admired for years of hard work finally paying off. For some it happens, accepting a Nobel Prize in front of your family, friends and that one high school teacher who never believed in you. As you reach out and grasp that medal a grin comes across your face as cameras flash and an applause erupts! Then, the sound and lights instantly disappear as the medal shoots out of your hand. Your grin slips away and your eyes open wide, as only the sound of the shower head fills your ears. Groggy and tired you bend down and grab the bar of soap, once a gold medal, off the shower floor. Brought back to reality, you can’t help but enjoy the day dreams of an early morning shower. Time to get ready for work.

I have often pondered what prevents people from becoming successful. What I have come to accept is that there is an important distinction between those who find success in their lives and those who do not, the fearless drive to ask a question that could end in rejection. My question as a college sophomore at the Rochester Institute of Technology was, “Dr. Goudreau, do you have room on your research team?” That very familiar Nobel Prize winning grin appeared as she responded “Yes, would you like to join?”

Seeing the Chemistry in Chemistry Education Research
The next semester I was in the lab working three hours a week under the guidance of an upperclassmen, adding one credit to my 16 credit load. While under his wing and with the help of Dr. Goudreau I began to develop a better understanding of our project and its future progress. Our objective was to rework and enhance the typical organic chemistry lab experience. So, how does one do that? First, we needed to design experiments that could be executed in a typical undergraduate chemistry lab and improve on those that are already in practice to better fit our new model. Then we needed to implement these modules into a legitimate setting and collect data using the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) as a tool to compare the old method to our new one. Was this a dream come true? An opportunity for me to question current methods and spend time thinking constructively about how to better chemistry labs, really at my fingertips? It couldn’t get better than this! But with every high hope of success comes with it that nagging fear: potential failure. It set in within the first month in my lab, my lack of confidence and fear of unexpected experimental results. My foot tapping on the ground as I waited for my eluent front to rise to the top of my TLC plate, hoping that I would see what should have been my final product. Nope, not there again.

Noticing my look of dissatisfaction, the upperclassman helping me knew what I needed to hear. He told me that this was a good thing, and that now I need to ask some important questions, experiment and have fun. Now this worked for almost everything except my fear of the NMR.

Don’t Break the NMR
Never had I dealt with a tool of similar value and I had convinced myself that I would somehow break it. Only when my instructor provide me the opportunity to work on this project during the summer and my upperclassman guide left for a master program did I shed that fear. I now had to do this all by myself, nobody was there to hold my hand. I would sit in that NMR room, flinching at every unfamiliar noise thinking, “It’s broken. It must be broken. I have never heard that noise before. I’m going to owe this school half a million dollars.” Yet with practice and time that icy fear soon melted away and I was running an NMR at full speed and without any doubt or fear of debt. I wish I could tell myself that there was no need for that anxiety but I’m sure in some ways it helped me.

Catching the Research Bug
The next ten weeks of my summer term went splendidly. I ran experiments and with the lessons I learned from the previous semester I was able to excavate important clues to help make the experiments I was running better than they had ever been. With the help of others I condensed the collected RTOP data into easily understood graphs and was ready to present my findings at the RIT symposium and the American Chemical Society conference in Boston. Currently, I am traveling to institutions in my region to collect RTOP data to further substantiate our findings.

Advice To Any Undergraduate Interested in Conducting Research in Chemical Education
First and foremost, if you have an opportunity for research in chemical education take it! The wonderful thing about this type of research is that there is variability in the environment you may work. I was not always conducting experiments in a lab and had opportunities for immersing myself in a classroom setting. One week I was conducting the bromination of an alkene and the next I was analyzing the efficiency of an experiment in teaching undergraduates basic chemical principles. As someone who would one day love to teach, this was a great opportunity for me to externally observe the current educational model.

Further, research for an undergraduate is by no means overwhelming and can be handled by any individual who is willing to put in the work. I highly recommend that any undergraduate students interested in research talk to their professors. Showing interest and getting involved is always impressive and the more you do of this the higher likelihood you will have of obtaining a position in research. You will never know what opportunities are out there if you never ask. Trust me you will want to know.

Don’t be afraid! I can say from experience that fear will only hold you back. Of course it is easy to say this now having some experience and having conquered my fear of the NMR. If I could tell myself one thing in my first semester of research it would be to not be so worried about everything and to relax and have fun. Research truly is an enjoyable experience and should be treated as such.

Finally, be confident and know your stuff. You will be surprised the impact that confidence can have on your performance and way others treat you. One of the best ways to generate confidence is to have a solid grasp of what you are talking about. This ability will come in handy in both the quality of your presentation of research and the impression you make on other people. Another way to create confidence is to research something you love. The joy the topic inspires will certainly be apparent to yourself and those around you.

I have not yet won the Nobel Prize, but what I have gained from undergraduate research has been invaluable. Don’t let an opportunity slip through your fingers and take your first step toward success.

William Marmor is an undergraduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, College of Health Sciences and Technology. William is expected to recieive his Bachelors of Science in Biomedical Sciences with a Minor in Psychology in May 2017.