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Pursuing Research at ODU This Summer to Forge a Path in the Sciences

By Tiffany Whitfield

For four summers, the National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program has brought students from community colleges across the country to Old Dominion University's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. There, they gained valuable access to hands-on research.

During the summer of 2022, 10 students from Tidewater Community College, Virginia Peninsula Community College, John Tyler Community College, Rappahannock Community College, Virginia Highlands Community College, Southside Virginia Community College, Motlow State Community College (Tennessee) and Johnson County Community College (Kansas) did research alongside ODU faculty in labs at the University's new Chemistry Building.

For most of the students in the department's REU program, this was their first encounter with research. All the budding researchers were paired with ODU chemistry/biochemistry faculty who helped them along this 10-week journey. They worked in pristine, spacious labs with the guidance of ODU graduate students.

For two REU chemistry and biochemistry participants, Jennifer Burdette and Savion Adams, getting hands-on experience along with one-on-one mentoring has been a game changer.

This summer was Burdette's first time conducting independent research.

"Everything looks so nice and new in the new chemistry building," said Burdette, who completed her associate's degree at Tidewater Community College. "The techniques are the same, but there are a lot more instruments here."

During the first half of the program, Burdette strengthened her laboratory skills and prepared a set of compounds, learning along the way how to identify and characterize them. She was mentored by ODU Assistant Professor Kyle Lambert.

"I would say one of the unique aspects of the chemistry and biochemistry REU program here at ODU is that it is geared towards providing opportunities to students from smaller programs and community colleges to participate in hands-on research, which they may not have otherwise been able to participate in because their home programs may not have the research infrastructure to allow for it," Lambert said.

Collaboration has been instrumental to the program. For instance, Lambert mentored Burdette, who happened to be working with another REU student, Savion Adams. Burdette's research project this summer involved developing compounds with new motifs to target bacterial infections and is part of a collaboration with Assistant Professor Erin Purcell's lab, where Adams, her REU student, conducted biological testing of the compounds.

Adams is a student at Southside Community College in Emporia and expects to receive his associate's degree in May 2023. Doing research with his mentor, Purcell, has been invaluable.

"It's definitely an interesting experience, and she encouraged me to ask questions and she was really nice about answering my questions," said Adams. "This experience has given me a pretty good general sense of what it's like to be in a lab setting and running experiments where you don't know the end result, and really makes me appreciate the process."

Over time Adams grew from just running tests to understanding how much determination is required to successfully complete research. He would like to work in the field of toxicology, and the work he's been doing at ODU's Chemistry and Biochemistry REU is getting him closer to that goal.

"Savion has demonstrated that he has good lab hands," said Purcell. "One thing I've noticed in working with REU students, and it's really been mutually beneficial for me and the graduate students, is that this process forces us to clarify our thinking about how to best the mentor new researchers."

All of the REU students spent hours in the labs, running experiments, learning how to use new equipment, and working one-on-one with their mentors and graduate students to build confidence as new scientists. Students worked in a number of fields within the chemical sciences, synthesizing new compounds, learning to work safely with bacteria and analyzing environmental samples.

According to Craig Bayse, professor and chair of ODU's department of chemistry and biochemistry and director of the program: "Our NSF-REU site is an excellent opportunity for community college students to gain real-life experience working with faculty and graduate students. Additionally, we help them prepare for the workforce through professional development workshops and field trips to local industry. Our success rate for the program is excellent, with almost all students transferring to a four-year degree program and many co-authoring scientific articles with their mentors."

What's more, every assignment the REU students accomplished helped them acquire valuable writing, presentation, collaboration, and time management skills that will serve them well as they look toward future studies and careers.

More information on the ODU Chemistry and Biochemistry REU site can be found at odureusites.org/chem.

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