Associate Professor Colin Abernethy, Jacob Meier '11, and Kate Edes '10 measure chemicals in the quantitative analysis wet laboratory. The view is through the new glass fume hoods that separate the physical chemistry lab from the quant lab.
KSC chemistry faculty talk about what makes their program special.
Molly Croteau '10 learns how to measure trace amounts of elements using a new atomic absorbance spectrometer from visiting lecturer Richard Gunawardane. This instrument measures heavy metal contaminants in groundwater, copper in drinking water, or arsenic in soup.
The quick version of their answers touches on the main components of any program at Keene State: the facilities, the opportunities for undergraduate research, the courses, the people. And perhaps most exciting, the possibilities for the future. For the chemistry faculty, each of these elements has special meaning.
Abernethy is Scottish, but was educated in England and Canada before doing postdoctoral work in the United States at the University of Texas. From there he returned to Scotland, then came back to this country with a particular interest in teaching undergraduates and facilitating undergraduate research. Why Keene? "The labs, believe it or not, are some of the nicest teaching spaces I've ever seen," Abernethy says. "A lot of what I can do here," he says about the new Science Center, "I can do because of this building – and without it, it just doesn't happen."
Blatchly also cites the surprisingly high level of equipment for a program this size, describing the instrumentation as comparable to that of a small graduate program. And much of that is by the faculty's own design. For example, Davis, who for years taught most sections of GenChem labs, was able to design the new Science Center's GenChem lab herself, complete with a separate recitation area and cubbies. The chemistry department's new labs not only have fancy equipment, but they also have far better ventilation and more safety features than their predecessors did.
David Gutierrez '09 and Jenn Kinney '09 (with Professor Richard Blatchly, center) learn to use a modern rotary evaporator to remove solvent from a reaction solution. This is a common operation in microscale chemistry, part of the department's "green chemistry" focus.
Students get the opportunity to present at national conferences, they get to see the opportunities that exist for employment and graduate study, and they get a better crack at some of the research money available for graduate study as a result. Some of Abernethy's students are getting to collaborate with scientists at the University of Texas and will spend two weeks in Austin working in the labs there. "Part of my job," says Abernethy, "is to show our kids what's out there." Abernethy came to Keene State with three midsized grants (two from the American Chemical Society, one from a research corporation), all for encouraging undergraduate research. The money Abernethy brings in funds lab equipment, but it also provides ongoing opportunities for Keene State students to do research year-round.
Jill Gormley '10 and J-Lynne Brown '10 use NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy to analyze an organic reaction product. This powerful technique uses radio waves and a strong magnet to probe the chemical nature of atomic nuclei.
Abernethy has also brought Project SEED back to New Hampshire, where there hadn't been a program for 15 years. SEED, an American Chemical Society (ACS) program, helps economically disadvantaged high school students by giving them a stipend and an opportunity to do research. Junge has had the chance to work with some preundergraduates, too: Last year, she mentored a student at Monadnock Regional High School in Swanzey through his senior project in chemistry. The student is taking a semester off, she says, but in spring 2009, he's coming to Keene State.
Beth Neuhardt '10 manipulates a compound under an inert atmosphere in a glove box. Replacing the air in the box with argon allows the synthesis of molecules that react with air. Dr. Abernethy's research focuses on the production of very unstable molecules that teach about the limits of chemical synthesis.
The Courses and Lyceum
But, of course, not everyone who takes chemistry is a chemistry major. Over half of the department's teaching is in what Blatchly calls "service courses," or courses for nonmajors.
Davis has also been able to work more with the Chemistry Lyceum. The Lyceum is a student-run organization, established in 1981 and chartered by the ACS in 1982. Students invite speakers to campus and participate in regional and national ACS meetings.
Every faculty member talked about colleagues they respected and enjoyed working with. And every professor could rattle off a list of former students who were not only doing well, but also staying connected to the department, whether just by keeping in touch or by coming back to talk to current students about opportunities in academia or industry.
And alumni support, Abernethy says, is huge. He sees it in the travel grants his own students are awarded, which make it possible for them to get to conferences.
Students have changed since Davis started, she says. When she started at KSC, chemistry students were more serious, more nerdy, and predominantly male. Today, there are more women (which may contribute to a larger number of less-nerdy men). Whereas many students used to know as much about the labs as she did, that's rarer now – but students are likely to be more tech-savvy than she is these days, considering that for years, there were no computers in the labs at all. They're more inclined to look things up, if less inclined to puzzle over things.
They're also, according to Jasinski and Blatchly, more likely to go on to graduate study.
Of course, "the future" means different things for current students than it does for the program, but there's excitement around both. Blatchly is pleased by the number of Keene State students who go on to graduate study (which, unlike an undergraduate education, is usually paid for). This means the opportunities are there for students who are willing to pursue them.
Jobs in chemistry tend to be research-oriented, Jasinski says, and Keene State's focus on undergraduate research leads to more success, whether students go on to those jobs right after their undergraduate educations or pursue graduate study. People calling for references, he says, want to know how prospective grad students or employees handle labs, research, and reports. What students do in their chemistry classes at Keene State "is what you do in the real world," he says.
The big excitement in the future of the program is pursuing ACS accreditation. The ACS certifies the best chemistry programs in the country – 646 of them nationally, but only three, so far, in New Hampshire, at Dartmouth, UNH, and St. Anselm. Abernethy and Junge both say Keene State is already using the ACS standards, and has been for several years, and accreditation would be a big next step. The department is also already getting grant money from ACS programs, and the Lyceum has been ACS-affiliated almost since its founding.
Blatchly and Jasinski both say that one challenge is staffing: One factor in getting the ACS accreditation is faculty having time to pursue their own research interests, and Keene faculty spend many hours teaching in the classroom. But they're working on it, and students are involved in faculty searches, just as they're involved in research. The department hopes to have an endowed position in the not-too-distant future, which would help.
Asked what he's proudest of, Jasinski says he enjoys watching people come in with modest expectations, then watching those expectations grow. "People don't realize the jewel we have here."