Institutional Highlights

Expanding Opportunities to Create Careers in Chemistry 

By Mike May  for the American Chemical Society

The center of a large city offers a wide range of opportunities in educating tomorrow’s chemists. Two schools—Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Spelman College—make the most of their communities to introduce students to chemistry and more.

The IUPUI campus lies just east of the White River that runs north to south through the heart of the city. Partha Basu, Ph.D.—professor and chair of chemistry and chemical biology—describes IUPUI as “an urban institution that serves a large number of first-generation college and minority students.”

Established in 1969, IUPUI started as a commuter institution, but the number of on-campus students is growing. The chemistry department has about 250 students, who can pursue IUPUI’s ACS-approved BS or BA degree.

Basu and his colleagues focus on giving students the strongest possible knowledge of chemistry. “We use high-impact practices, such as Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL),” Basu says. “From this experience, we believe that students get a much firmer grasp of the subject, which helps them be successful in introductory courses and lays the foundation for success in upper-level courses.”

For hands-on experience, IUPUI chemistry students can take advantage of other opportunities, as well. “We have a very strong undergraduate research program,” Basu says. “So, our faculty are committed in training undergraduates.” Plus, chemistry undergraduates can get involved with other parts of IUPUI, including the life health science initiative and research at other schools, such as the school of medicine and the school of dentistry. Students can do even research between semesters. “We have specific programs, including a summer research program for minority students,” Basu says. “Most recently, we have been selected to institute a Beckman Scholar Program (BSP) for undergraduate research, which is great.” Indianapolis also offers many internship opportunities. “A lot of Fortune 500 companies, like Eli Lilly and Roche Biosciences, are here, “ Basu says. “All of these things help collectively to enhance the undergraduate success.”

The IUPUI chemistry department also provides a personalized experience. “Our mentoring program is very strong,” Basu explains. “We pretty much know every student.”

IUPUI’s staff also mentor new faculty members. As an example, Ian Webb, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, came to IUPUI in 2018. He says his biggest challenges during his year “were figuring out the nuts and bolts of administration, teaching/grading, course development, and setting up the lab.” He adds, “I was able to survive by asking other assistant professors a lot of questions.” If he could replay his first year, he’d ask for even more help. As he says, “I would have—from the beginning—tried to find more mentors in my research field to read my proposals and reviews.”

The timing of being a new member of the faculty also impacts the process. During the summer of 2020, early into the COVID-19 pandemic, assistant professor of chemistry Yongming Deng, Ph.D. came to IUPUI. In that year, he says that one of his main challenges was “adapting teaching to the hybrid form of online and in-person.”

To help other new faculty get started, Deng suggests: “Always be active and positive, reach out to students, and seek advice from other faculty and the chair.” He’d also encourages even more outreach. As Deng thinks back on what he would have done differently in his first year, he says, “I would make additional efforts to increase the visibility of my research program by attending more conferences and building up more connections with other chemists in the field.” He adds, “I would have tried to introduce more student engagements in my teaching, such as student-group projects of synthesis.”

By offering an ACS-approved BS, Basu says, “We can promote that, and it helps us to offer more foundational courses and add more quantitative analysis.” This includes physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, and added laboratory experience. “They’re going to get more hands-on experience, which makes them more marketable and also allows them to have a strong conceptual framework,” Basu says.

Connecting chemistry and society

Located just southwest of downtown Atlanta, more than 2,100 students attend Spelman College. “We consider ourselves a premier model for preparing women of African descent to be thought leaders in the chemical and biochemical sciences,” says Kimberly Jackson, Ph.D., chair of chemistry and biochemistry and professor of biochemistry. “We strive to foster an intellectual community of scholars, create innovative and impactful curricula, and provide competitive research experiences that they need.”

One way that Jackson and her colleagues enrich the experience of students is by “creating what we consider culturally relevant pedagogy.” Even the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded some of that work. In some of our classes, we make sure that, when we’re teaching chemistry, there is a link to the African diaspora,” Jackson explains, “There is a link to heritage, there’s a link to culture, and we do what we consider socially responsive teaching that links science with society.”

This approach expands a student’s experience. “Chemistry is all around us, and we make sure that our young women know how to work in the scientific enterprise,” Jackson says. In her biochemistry laboratory course, for example, students generate their own research questions, and it’s connected to society, as well. When Jackson once focused on cancer, her class read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. “We talked about the racial implications of the time,” Jackson says. “Then, we talked about how we might find a cure for cervical cancer, which Henrietta had.” With that background, the students cultured human cervical-cancer cells and picked a natural product to study as a possible therapy. “They researched various signaling pathways, created their own research questions, and designed experiments,” Jackson says. “They’re being trained in biochemical techniques, but with a different spin.”

The ACS-approval also helps the students take steps in chemistry beyond Spelman. Students have told Jackson that the ACS-approved degree adds to their resume and shows a commitment to chemistry. Many Spelman students go on to graduate programs. As Jackson points out: “According to the NSF, we’re number one in terms of schools across the country sending Black women to get PhDs in the sciences and engineering.”

Having an ACS-approved degree for students benefits the entire department. “It has really helped us in terms of making sure that we have two faculty per discipline—at least two biochemists, two inorganic chemists, two organic chemists, two physical chemists, and two analytical chemists,” Jackson says. Moreover, the ACS-approved degree helps the department acquire and maintain new equipment with administrative support. That includes state of the art equipment, such as a 400-megahertz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer  Thinking about the faculty and equipment benefits of the ACS-approval, Jackson emphasizes, “It’s been truly helpful to the department.”

Moreover, the ACS-approved degree helps the department acquire new equipment. That includes a 400-megahertz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, plus what Jackson calls “almost state-of-the-art types of equipment.” Thinking about the faculty and equipment are benefits of the ACS-approval, Jackson emphasizes, “It’s been truly helpful to the department.”

Atlanta also offers a rich science community. As a part of the Atlanta University Consortium, Spelman faculty and students benefit from nearby schools. “Our students get to cross-register across those different campuses and experience different types of curricula,” Jackson says.

As Jackson describes the Spelman chemistry faculty, she says, “We’re stellar teachers and scholars—that’s who we are.” But they are even more. “We provide mechanisms for our students to become the next generation of leaders in the chemical and biochemical sciences,” Jackson says.

Near the centers of two large cities, both IUPUI and Spelman College take advantage of their locations. As a result, their students enjoy an education in chemistry and culture.

“It [ACS Approval] has really helped us in terms of making sure that we have two faculty per discipline—at least two biochemists, two inorganic chemists, two organic chemists, two physical chemists, and two analytical chemists,” Kimberly Jackson, PhD, Spelman College Department Chair says.

Chemistry Students at Spelman College

Student in Laboratory