Mountain climbing…a summer research philosophy

In this PUI summer research profile, Dr. Hector Palencia introduces his group and shares his experience and advice for summer research success.


It is my pleasure to share our lab research experience this summer. In this first part I will talk about the who, what, and the goals of the research this summer.  Hopefully, my group’s experience can be helpful for others working in summer undergraduate projects.

Personnel

The boss: I’m Dr. Palencia, an Associate Professor at the Department of Chemistry/University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK). I got my Ph. D. in a combined program UNAM (Mexico)/University of Nebraska at Lincoln, working in Dr. Takacs’ group. Then, I worked in Dr. Mukund Sibi’s group as a postdoctoral researcher. My training is in homogeneous catalysis and organic synthesis.

The army! I got  two students this summer, Liel and Josh; they are working on two different projects.

Josh is a sophomore, chemistry major, working in the benzoin condensation reaction promoted by N-heterocycle carbenes. He is evaluating the substrate scope of the reaction.

Liel is sophomore, biology major, working in a new project developing new organocatalysts for domino reactions. She is new. The synthesis can be challenging at times but it is working.

Isabel.jpg
Isabel at the hood

Finally, I am lucky that have in my group a well skilled chemist, Isabel Montoya, who is volunteering. She has been working in Josh’s project and will be working later in the domino reaction project.

 

Who we are, where we are and the recruiting process

Our campus is in the central part of Nebraska. The university serves students from a large area from central and west part of the state but also parts of neighbor states, such as Colorado, Kansas, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Our student population is diverse, we have students from other states and international students, a large proportion of them from China and South Korea.

During the academic spring/semester our students are committed to their research projects, I typically have 3 to 5 students in my group. However, during the summer, most of them get a full-time job, take summer classes, or go back home to help their parents in the farm.

Our campus is located in a rural area and about 40 % of our students are the first generation in their family to go to college. And here is the tricky part to recruit students for the summer. During the academic spring/semester our students are committed to their research projects, I typically have 3 to 5 students in my group. However, during the summer, most of them get a full-time job, take summer classes, or go back home to help their parents in the farm. The university has some summer grants for students, the stipend is reasonable, so students can focus on research instead of working somewhere else, the number of grants is limited though. Paying students through grants is another way to keep the students in the lab, but the stipend must be higher than what they can get in a summer job, which sometimes is hard to achieve. I have handled to keep my group in the range of one to three students for the summer, sometimes paying or

Josh.jpg
Josh at the glove box

volunteering, some of them are local or from the area. I’ve been working with international students, too. They stay here during the summer and are willing to work in a research project. They have been a source of undergraduate researchers during the summer for my group.

 

 

I recruit my summer researchers in my general or organic chemistry classes but some of them are my regular researches too, like Josh. UNK has a good number of international students but a large percent of them are in an exchange program, which means they just will stay at UNK for one year, and this is not the ideal situation for a productive summer. The most productive students are those who start working in my group since their freshman or sophomore year, by the time they become senior students, and can carry out their research with independence. And that is the idea, when they go to a graduate program or get a job in the industry, they realize that everything they learned in the research lab shaped their career.

Training

Our goal as mentors of undergraduate researchers is to publish our results, submit proposals and eventually get them funded. Depending on the project, our students might need more help. Reactions for some projects are air and moisture sensitive and working with them it can be tricky for our undergraduate researchers, especially those with little experience. I’ve been working with new students and even high school students! How do I manage to make a productive summer while working with students who have no experience? Good training and encouragement, plus asking them to work in a project that I know works.

How do I manage to make a productive summer while working with students who have no experience? Good training and encouragement, plus asking them to work in a project that I know works.

What do I do for new reactions or methodology? I explore them during the academic semester. Once I see the reactions work I can give the project to the students and help them figure out what went wrong when they do not work. I also ask them to run the reactions in duplicate. If a see a big difference between then, I ask them to repeat them. Sometimes, the reaction and the student are not a good match! I ask another student to run it and it usually works. I stress to them that it is okay to mess up; sometimes it works, sometimes not, and that’s chemistry! I think keeping students’ enthusiasm is key to having a productive group.

Sometimes, the reaction and the student are not a good match!…and that’s chemistry! I think keeping students’ enthusiasm is key to having a productive group.

For synthetic methodology yields and reproducibility are important! How do I know if a reaction in a new project does not work at all? Or did it not work because my enthusiastic researcher did his/her best but somehow she/he messed up with it? How do I know if a poor yield is because it is a limitation of the method or something else happened? These are the big questions for a productive summer! How do I handle it?

bp24Over time I have learned that was not good to be too ambitious, spreading the group’s effort into three different projects leads to no accomplishments!

The chemistry has ups and downs but the group is working hard, when things are not working as we expect, I tell them that accomplishing a project is like climbing a mountain. Some mountains are not very tall, and climbing them is easy, others are taller and harder to climb. Climbing a tall mountain is challenging, but the reward is proportional.

“…when things are not working as we expect, I tell them that accomplishing a project is like climbing a mountain. …Climbing a tall mountain is challenging, but the reward is proportional. “

My students’ goals

  • Liel
    Liel at the glove box

    Poster presentations: One important goal for my students is to get enough data to present a poster in our ACS regional or a, ACS National Meeting. This year we are traveling to Lawrence, KS to attend the Midwest Regional Meeting at the University of Kansas in October. My students present their research at the “Students Research Day/UNK” during the spring semester.

  • Characterization of products and catalysts: Josh is characterizing the properties of the compounds that have been synthesized, NMR (proton/carbon-13) and their melting points.
  • New directions: Liel and Isabel are exploring the catalytic activity of the NHC catalysts in new reactions.

The boss’ goals

The beginning of the summer was hectic, I was pulled in different directions, I was teaching one summer class and volunteering for different events.  Now that my summer class is over and I’m done with the most of other service activities, I’ll be able to focus on my scholarship! have some ambitious goas this summer.

  • Writing: This is perhaps the important part of my summer time. I have two pending goals:
  • Draft paper: I’ve set up this as my highest priority goal. I need to have a draft by the end of the summer with Josh’s and Isabel’s results.
  • Draft for a proposal: This is my second priority for the summer, we are exploring new reactions with the NHC organocatalysts hopefully I get the draft dome by the end of the summer
  • Preliminary data: I’m working synthesizing new catalysts and running some new reactions to get preliminary data for a proposal, Liel is working in this project with me.

Here is an overview of Palencia’s lab. I’ll let you know how things went by the end of the summer.


palenciahector_directory~Dr. Hector Palencia is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska at Kearney where he does research with students in oganocatalysis, organometallic chemistry and synthetic methodology.  He also serves in the Chemistry Division of the Council for Undergraduate Research.

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