Undergraduate research experiences can have a big impact on student learning, mindset and career choice. Just ask chemistry major Kaia Martin '21.
"Before I was doing this research, I didn't really know what I was going to do after Whitman," said Martin, who spent the summer between her sophomore and junior years conducting research in the laboratory of Assistant Professor Mark Hendricks.
"As I'm engaging more with the Chemistry Department, I'm realizing that I want to go to grad school," said Martin, a first-generation student from North Bend, Oregon. "Researching with Professor Hendricks, in particular, is pointing me in the direction of clean energy or something along those lines. His research is really relevant to my current goals and has shaped my future goals."
Martin and more than 60 other Whitties spent this past summer taking part in more than 30 undergraduate research projects — all thanks to funding provided by the Louis B. Perry Summer Research Endowment. The endowment funds Faculty-Student Summer Research Awards, which support collaborative projects between Whitman students and faculty in a variety of disciplines.
While Martin was busy conducting scientific research on "Precursor Development and Synthesis of Semiconducting Nanocrystals," other students were focused on the social sciences and humanities and arts - such as an economics research project on "Environmental Pollution and Infant Health" and another exploring "The Philosophy of Maria Montessori."
These summer research projects — usually about nine weeks in duration and free of regular coursework — provide students a boost to their learning while giving them hands-on research skills. From research design to data collection and analysis to information literacy and communication, the faculty-student research projects help students advance professionally through opportunities such as scholarly publication, becoming part of a learning community, and building relationships with mentors and peers.
These summer research projects help students not only clarify their career path, but also understand the research process in a field of study and gain insight into how scientists think. In addition, students gain self-confidence, independence of work and thought, and a sense of accomplishment.
Researching Nanocrystals Leads to Bright Future
In the Hall of Science, Martin and two fellow Perry scholars spent their summer researching nanocrystals - particles that can emit and absorb light based on quantum mechanics.
Working in the lab alongside Martin were Soren Sandeno '21 of Bellingham, Washington, and Weibin "Jack" Chen '19, an international student from Hangzhou City, China. Chen focused on completing his senior thesis on zinc sulfide and the development of its molecular precursors, while Martin and Sandeno were just getting started on the research projects that will form the basis of their own senior theses.
"They're getting to spend a lot of one-on-one time with me and their fellow students in the lab," Hendricks said. "Jack is able to provide a role model relationship with Kaia and Soren. They're learning from him, and they're all learning from me - not just about chemistry, but also career options once you're a chemist."
Hendricks has researched nanocrystals for the past decade. He is interested in solar applications - for instance, using nanocrystals to make solar cells - and he thinks there are many new applications yet to be learned. He has continued to build on his doctoral research at Columbia University since joining Whitman's faculty in 2018.
"Ten years ago, the applications for nanocrystals were limited to biological imaging, such as dyeing a cell," Hendricks said. "But over the past five years, a lot of companies have started using nanocrystals to produce the color in high-end television display monitors - QLED, or quantum dot LEDs."
Martin learned about nanocrystals in her first-year general chem class. She applied for and received funding through the Perry Endowment to assist Hendricks with his research.
"Once I got to Whitman and started taking really rigorous chemistry classes, I realized I really, really liked it," Martin said. "It's interesting to look at the chemistry and use the physics to explain what's going on. You really get down to the basics of what's happening."
Martin appreciated the degree of independence Hendricks gave her and her fellow researchers.
"Feeling like you are trusted to work for him and to make your own decisions about where you want these experiments to go is incredibly empowering," Martin said. "While he is completely involved in the research, he is totally okay with us taking the initiative and focusing on what we want to focus on - which makes the whole experience just that much more interesting."
Creative Synthesis of Organic Molecules
Nearby in another Hall of Science laboratory, biocatalysis was the focus of research conducted by James Bent '21 and Zane Boyer '21. Both biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (BBMB) majors, Bent and Boyer collaborated with Assistant Professor Jonathan Collins to create organic molecules via the biocatalytic process called chemoenzymatic synthesis.
"Biocatalysis is a part of everyday life," Collins said. "Laundry detergent has enzymes in it that help break down organic molecules in soiled clothes. Technically, making cheese is a biocatalytic process. Fermentation to make alcohol is humans using biocatalysis to do something. In our case, we use living bacteria to perform selective oxidations of organic molecules. The products of these transformations then become the building blocks for synthesizing other important compounds."
The molecules Collins and his student research team were after are compounds in the epoxy quinoid natural product family. These molecules have been shown to affect signaling pathways in human biology, including those in diseases such as cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.
"These epoxyquinols have been shown to inhibit the building of new blood vessels," said Bent, a first-generation student from Snoqualmie, Washington. "Studying these compounds will help us to potentially make a treatment that could inhibit the growth of tumors."
Bent aspires to work at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
"This lab experience will help me build a résumé," he said. "It's an art form coming up with experiments and designing them. That's one thing I've learned this summer."
For Boyer, the BBMB program is what attracted him from Homer, Alaska, to study at Whitman.
"I've learned so much working with Professor Collins," Boyer said. "There are so many genius scientists who have these great discoveries and comprehensive data, but it's hard for them to communicate that to people who don't have a degree in the sciences. Going to a liberal arts school really helps you convey what you are learning in the sciences."
Another goal of this research project is to devise more environmentally-friendly ways to make organic molecules.
"Biocatalysis is very much a green type of chemistry," Collins said. "It's a way to make important molecules with a lower carbon footprint, more efficiently and with less waste."
The opportunity to advance the field of organic chemistry is a key benefit of summer research projects, adding to the positive effects students reap from the research experience and the impact it has on their personal development.
"The Perry grant is full-time work for nine weeks - the research requires that," Collins said. "The intensity of the work in the summertime is quite high. They're learning what it's like to approach a research problem from a very real place. That's what I see as one of the most important things students learn - how to come up with the questions, how to go about answering those questions, and how to manage the time associated with that. If they're not efficient with their time, then they're not going to get any questions answered. Learning how to manage yourself in the lab is one of the most important things they can carry with them. If they go to grad school or industry, those skills will transfer."
Bent testified to the intensity of the summer research projects funded by the Perry Endowment.
"It's very hands-on. I'm learning tons. The first two to three weeks I made some mistakes and learned a lot about being exact and careful," he said. "But maybe one day, like five years from now, after we've catalogued all these substrates and written papers on it, figured out if the process is efficient and usable, then maybe we can do even cooler chemistry."