By Tina Underwood, Contributing Writer
Synthesizing molecules for protecting cotton crops in developing countries. Discovering new ways to treat cancer. And contributing to chemistry education. These activities might sound like those of large research institutions, or maybe bio-engineering or pharmaceutical firms. But these projects are the work of undergraduates in the chemistry labs at Furman University.
Chemistry Professor Brian Goess, Ph.D., says undergrad research goes a long way toward helping students develop confidence in their own abilities.
“When they see they can conquer a meaningful problem, one that the outside science community is clearly interested in and is willing to fund, it gives them a fearlessness about tackling complex, challenging, scientific problems, and a deep desire to do that at the next level,” he said.
“We have the opportunity to learn about and contribute to a research topic on a level that most undergraduate institutions don’t provide. In the labs at Furman, we are strengthening our own scientific knowledge, and also contributing to the larger scientific community.” — Dena Rhinehart ’15
Dating to the 1950s, Furman has one of the oldest chemistry undergraduate research programs in the nation. Each summer, Furman routinely grants stipends to 60-70 students working in labs on campus. On top of those numbers, about a dozen full-time Furman faculty work with students from other institutions who come to campus because Furman’s labs are so well-equipped with state-of-the art instrumentation.
“The result is we have a spectacular, thriving community of young scholars in chemistry doing research, and that excitement permeates not only the summer but all throughout the academic year,” says Goess.
Chemistry major Dena Rhinehart ’15 says, “We have the opportunity to learn about and contribute to a research topic on a level that most undergraduate institutions don’t provide. In the labs at Furman, we are strengthening our own scientific knowledge, and also contributing to the larger scientific community.”
Rhinehart worked with Goess on an ongoing experiment to synthesize hibiscone-C, a molecule with potential cancer chemotherapeutic properties. Not only did she succeed in making the molecule from scratch during a 10-week summer research program, she is the first person in the world to discover that the molecule has similar properties to its more complex (and harder to synthesize) parent. Later this year, Rhinehart will reproduce the results, and, with Goess and Biology Professor Jason Rawlings, Ph.D., plans to submit the findings to the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
Success breeds success in the realm of research. Rhinehart’s work was funded by work begun in 2006 by Goess and five Furman chemistry students who first fabricated hibiscone-C. Their findings led to a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant to support 12 additional Furman students working on the project. And Rhinehart, no doubt catapulted by her efforts in the lab, will be working at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital this summer in the pediatric oncology education program.
Often, the results of research spawn new projects. Brooks Duff ‘11 and Tyler Abbe ‘12 spent a summer adapting a sequence of reactions used in the hibiscone-C synthesis for use in undergraduate teaching labs. Their work was published in the Journal of Chemical Education, and the process is used in labs at Dartmouth, Wofford and others.
So much more than a name on a paper, personal development is the most remarkable byproduct of the undergraduate research experience, says Goess. Goess points to a paper that appeared in Journal of Organic Chemistry authored by Thomas Graham (M.S. ‘09), Erin Gray ’11, and James Burgess ’11. In it, the students and Goess outlined an eight-step synthesis of a molecule, grandisol, useful in developing countries to control the cotton boll weevil.
Seeing a project through from start to finish, conceptualizing the idea, testing it in the lab, writing the results, then sending the paper off for peer review is challenging work, says Goess. And having to respond to referees’ criticism often with even more work has a way of building resilience in students.
“For three students to have done this, I felt both incredibly proud and incredibly lucky to have the caliber students who possess the tenacity to do this kind of work. Science is mostly about not being successful, and then getting up and trying again,” says Goess.
Graham and Gray are now organic chemistry graduate students at Princeton University, and Burgess is in med school at MUSC. Gray, who originally chose Furman for its research reputation and focus on undergraduate education, says, “By the time I left Furman, I was an author on two papers and had presented my research at several professional conferences. More importantly, I learned the tools, techniques, and thought processes of chemists, which eased the transition to graduate school.”
Whether it’s getting a jump on grad school or developing the personal grit and fortitude to take on tough problems, Goess says undergraduate research is also about helping students find their vocation, whatever it might be.
“We as faculty are not only committed to training the next generation of scientists, we want to help students discern whether this is the right career path for them," says Goess. "I can’t think of a better way to do that than to provide them with a rigorous authentic experience–a micro environment at Furman where they can see firsthand what grad school is like, so they can answer the question, ‘Do I see myself being comfortable with this for the next five to six years?’ or ‘Do I see this as a good target for my career over the next 20 to 40 years?’ I think one of the more valuable contributions I can make is helping students figure that out.”