Institutional Highlights

Talking with a trio: Exploring the connection between departments and the American Chemical Society

By Mike May for the American Chemical Society

In 1936, the American Chemical Society (ACS) started its approval program. Today, with the program closing in on 700 approved chemistry departments in the United States, making it a great time to explore some of them. In this recurring column, we will take readers on a tour of a few approved departments. Our journey starts with a trio of schools east of the Mississippi: Elizabethtown College, Xavier University of Louisiana, and Hamilton College.

Instrumentation in E-town

Locals in south-central Pennsylvania know Elizabethtown as E-town, as well as home to Elizabethtown College. Next year, the college’s chemistry department will reach its 50th anniversary of ACS approval. That long-term relationship fits in with a foundational philosophy of the department. As Jeff Rood—associate professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry—explains, “We create a relationship-centered environment.” He adds, “We intentionally get to know the students and work with them really closely.”

The ACS approval helps Elizabethtown maintain a top-notch team. “It helps us from the department recruit really talented faculty who can help us carry on our program,” Rood says. “That brings strength to the college as a whole.”

In modern chemistry, though, teamwork is not enough to teach tomorrow’s scientists, they also need to learn how to use sophisticated equipment. When asked how ACS-approval impacts Elizabethtown’s chemistry department, Rood says, “It’s been very important in our ability to maintain our instrumentation.” For example, the instrumentation expectations to maintain ACS approval help Rood and his colleagues “advocate for the necessary instruments,” he notes.

Learning to use instrumentation helps students prepare for future opportunities and experiences. Every other year, Rood and his colleagues take some students to the annual ACS meeting. “They present their work,” Rood says. “[Students] see the real-world side of what science can do and are able to engage in  some networking at the meeting.”

Elizabethtown chemistry students even have the opportunity to work outside of the college. “Our students become involved in research early on, which makes them more competitive for internships,” Rood says. In fact, the college’s chemistry students find internships at a variety on places, including  pharmaceutical companies, forensics labs and some materials labs. Rood also notes, “We have an internship program with Eurofins Lancaster Laboratories,” where students have the opportunity to work in drug development through quality control.

Making the Most of Mentoring

After eight and a half years serving as the chair of chemistry at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, Maryam Foroozesh—Margaret W. Kelly Endowed Professor in Chemistry—understands the traditions in this department, which will mark 50 years of ACS approval in 2021. Here, the chemistry faculty invest heavily in advising and mentoring students. “There’s lots of time for students to meet with faculty,” Foroozesh says. “Most faculty even complete a mentor-training program to learn how to be good mentors.” Then, the faculty pay forward those skills. “We train students for leadership roles and provide them with service opportunities through peer mentoring, tutoring, the ACS student chapter and more.” Plus, the department provides a socially forward environment with a group of 27 faculty who are diverse in ethnicity, race, and gender.

Foroozesh points out that ACS approval “helps with recruiting faculty, research staff and students.” In addition, chemistry students at Xavier receive a big-school experience at a relatively small university. “The students, in general, feel very connected to ACS and feel like they are part of the larger scientific community,” she explains.

For example, Jada Adams—a senior in Xavier’s chemistry department—notes that ACS approval gives her an edge by completing a degree that follows the ACS  guidelines, such as “firsthand experience in a laboratory setting and knowledge into the science behind the lab work.” But she wants even more. She says, “I aspire to continue researching topics related to chemistry beyond my time at Xavier, and being a ACS-certified degree track major has well prepared me for taking the next step toward my future.”

The chemistry faculty at Xavier also aspire to do more. “We have a curriculum committee, and we review the courses in a cycle, and as different guidelines come from ACS, we make sure that any topics mentioned are covered,” Foroozesh explains.

Upstate New York Opportunities

Despite being the new kid on the ACS approval block among this group of chemistry departments, Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, became ACS-approved eight years ago, and it already feels a proud sense of tradition. As Karen Brewer—Silas D. Childs Professor of Chemistry and chair of the chemistry department at Hamilton College—states, “Most students would say they become chemistry majors because we have a long tradition of outstanding undergraduate research and excellent support.” In addition to a required senior project, students can start research experiences through summer and academic-year research with Hamilton faculty.

ACS approval at Hamilton has already benefited the department. For example, Brewer mentions that they will be adding a new faculty position. “We used ACS guidelines in terms of what is an upcoming area—environmental analytical chemistry,” she says. So, that’s the specialty that will be filled by the new position.

This added diversity in expertise in the department’s faculty will enhance the breadth of courses that students can take, which is already a goal at Hamilton—one enhanced through ACS approval. As Brewer explains, the ACS guidelines “force the students to not just focus on one area of chemistry that they happen to like.” Plus, Brewer’s team has provided additional opportunities for the students, such as new upper-level seminar-style classes in inorganic materials, structural biology, advanced NMR techniques, drug design and more. Simply put, Brewer says that such courses will provide the students a “broader base” to launch into careers and graduate school.

That broader base, though, also depends on  classes outside of chemistry. For one thing, students at Hamilton must improve their writing throughout college. “From writing lab reports to writing manuscript-like papers, we scaffold up to the senior project,” Brewer explains. “Our writing-intensive integrated lab course helps them write an excellent thesis their senior year.”

Pros of Approval

As the world of chemistry evolves, so must the ACS Guidelines. Some of the experts here point out some helpful changes that have been made in recent years. For example, Brewer says, “I like that they’ve made the guidelines much more flexible.” As she adds, “We now fit better with some things.” In particular, she notes that a department could now focus in materials science if it wanted to offer special opportunities in that area.

Rood hopes for even more flexibility of the approval program. “This is probably one of the most uncertain times in higher education, and the landscape evolves every day,” he says. “We need to be creative in ways that a department can meet the ACS expectations in faculty, instruments and overall support.” It will take departments and the ACS working together to keep moving forward, especially during a pandemic challenge.

All of the effort from the ACS and approved departments pay off for graduates. Upon graduation, Rood says, “a certified degree gives students the foundation to go in a variety of ways—a range of industries, graduate or professional school.” After an undergraduate degree, the breadth of capabilities that a student possesses make more opportunities possible, which really is just what a graduate should seek—an exciting and option-filled future.

“A certified degree gives students the foundation to go in a variety of ways—a range of industries, graduate or professional school.” — Jeff Rood, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair, Department of chemistry and Biochemistry, Elizabethtown College

Students in a lab at Elizabethtown College
Students in a lab at Elizabethtown College

Chemistry students at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania

Student working in a lab at Xavier University
Student working in a lab at Xavier University

Chemistry students at Xavier University of Louisiana