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UB chemists awarded $340,000 to bring undergrads to Buffalo for summer research, career development

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Tue, Jul 23rd 2019 03:25 pm

Lab work, ethics & social media on agenda, with goal of helping students become well-rounded scientists

Being a scientist means more than just working in a lab.

That’s why a new summer research program in the University at Buffalo department of chemistry is also covering topics such as ethics, interviewing, public speaking and establishing a professional presence on social media.

The 10-week program is called “CHEM 360°: A Comprehensive Research and Career Development Experience @UBChemistry.”

It’s funded by a $340,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and will take place each year through 2021 as part of the NSF’s well-known Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) initiative.

“The unique spin of our REU is to integrate career development into what students are learning,” said Jason Benedict, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “To be a successful scientist, you have to think beyond the laboratory. You have to understand ethics. You have to be able to communicate science effectively. Your online presence matters a lot – how do you present yourself in a professional way?”

Benedict is leading the REU with Timothy Cook, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, with support from many colleagues who are hosting student researchers in their labs. UB Career Services is also a partner.

The program is open to undergraduates who do not attend UB. The first participants – who began their experience this June – include five students from Western New York colleges and universities, and six from the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey (UPR Cayey).

Becoming a Well-Rounded Scientist

Participants in CHEM 360° conduct research in UB chemistry labs, tour local companies, and attend career development seminars and workshops.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Shermain Aponte, a junior at UPR Cayey who is in the REU. “I’ve learned about what it looks like to be in a Ph.D. program, and about how you can get the word out about your work when you’re a scientist. Scientists are always learning new information, and you want to share that with people, because you want them to be aware of what is happening in the world.”

Aponte is doing research with UB Ph.D. student Grace Guardian in the lab of Diana Aga, Ph.D., Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry at UB. The team is optimizing analytical methods for detecting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) ‚Äčin deer tissues.

PFAS are highly stable, manmade chemicals that are widely used in industrial and consumer applications. The compounds are important components of aqueous film-forming foams used in firefighting, and are also found in textiles, food packaging materials and nonstick coatings. PFAS find their way into the environment as pollutants; and, in part because they are so hard to break down, they can accumulate in the bodies of animals.

“It’s exciting to do research, and I really like thinking about how you can apply what you do in the lab to what’s happening out in the world,” said Aponte, a biology major at UPR Cayey.

Creating a Pipeline for Future UB Chemists

CHEM 360° creates new opportunities for Western New York undergraduates and strengthens the department of chemistry’s longstanding relationship with partners in Puerto Rico.

Dozens of undergraduates from Puerto Rico have studied and conducted research in UB’s chemistry department over the years thanks to connections created and nurtured by UB faculty member Luis Colón, Ph.D., A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Chemistry and a native of Puerto Rico. Some of these students have gone on to enroll in UB’s graduate programs in chemistry, with several earning UB Ph.D.s.

Colón has also been engaged in recruiting students into CHEM 360°.

Looking ahead, Benedict and Cook said they are hopeful some REU participants from Puerto Rico and elsewhere will return to UB to pursue an advanced degree. It’s happened before: The department had a past REU led by faculty that included professors Janet Morrow, Ph.D., and Sherry Chemler, Ph.D. Several participants in that program also chose UB for graduate school.

“We’ve got a great group of students this year and, if they have a good experience here, they might opt to come here to UB to pursue their master’s or Ph.D.,” Cook said. “They’ll already be familiar with this institution and who we are, and they’ll be excited to come back.”

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