Prepare the Sled in Summer…so your research with undergrads can thrive

This week in our Summer Research Series, Dr. Dmytro Kosenkov take a moment at the beginning of this summer research season to reflect on the culmination of his path to tenure – how he made a plan, built his group and secured funding to support his research. His motto? Prepare the sled in summer…

Prepare the sled in summer…

“While it is fine weather mend your sails” or as a Russian proverb says “Prepare the sled in summer, and cart in winter.” Summer time is the culmination of our year-round research activities and time to reflect on past six years. Here I would like to share a few thoughts that, I hope, will be useful for junior faculty at PUI intuitions similar to Monmouth University (MU).

Balancing Education and Research Objectives

The first challenging assignment on my tenure-track position at MU was to set up a physical chemistry teaching laboratory the summer before my first semester. In my first year, I was teaching five new courses: Physical Chemistry I and II lectures and labs, and Computational Chemistry and Molecular Modeling. I have created all instructional materials from scratch, developed laboratory procedures and manuals, as well as all assignments and exams. It was a hectic year. I quickly realized that teaching has natural deadlines such as scheduled class meetings, mid-term and final grades. In contrast, research activities often did not have those external deadlines. It turned out that it was easy to slip off my internal schedule of research activities and it would be too late to improve my productivity. I needed a solid plan to advance my research agenda! Per my Dean’s recommendation, I went to CUR institute on “Beginning a Research Program in the Natural Sciences at a Predominantly Undergraduate Institution Institute” []. It was a productive trip, as I met my colleagues and future mentors at that meeting. After discussing my challenges with mentors and getting their advice, and summarizing my own reflections, I developed a plan. It consisted of 3-5 goals to be accomplished every semester. In my plan, each project should aim to have two components: research and education. Each research component aimed to lead directly to publications and grant applications; while each educational component helped to improve courses that I taught, also making them a part of my research agenda.

I went to CUR institute on “Beginning a Research Program in the Natural Sciences at a Predominantly Undergraduate Institution Institute”… It was a productive trip, as I met my colleagues and future mentors at that meeting.

For example, we modeled DNA-ligand interactions as a part of my research project on anti-cancer drug discovery. The research component of that project led to a journal paper [J. Phys. Chem. B, 2015, 119(8), 3335-3347] and the educational component led to a new laboratory unit for physical and computational chemistry courses, also published later [J. Chem. Educ., 2018, 95(5), 882-887]. Integrating research projects into my courses [ ] helped to recruit undergraduates to my research lab and later led to multiple undergraduate research presentations, educational publications, grants and awards.

Samantha Silvent and Gary Prato at the 12th Student Research Conference at Monmouth University
Samantha Silvent and Gary Prato have been awarded the Dean’s Award of Excellence in Undergraduate Research at The 12th Annual Student Research Conference at Monmouth University for their research poster presentation: Molecular Modeling of DNA Binding Potential Anti-Cancer Drug: Napthaline Diimide  (April 2013)

Over the first winter break, I assembled a computer cluster for my research lab and started working with my students on developing computational procedures to model excitation energy transfer in proteins. Some students preferred to work in the physical chemistry teaching laboratory developing new experiments that we integrated into our chemistry courses [J. Chem. Educ., 2016, 93(7), 1299-1304, J. Chem. Educ., 2016, 93(1), 175-181].

In my experience as a mentor to undergraduate researchers I realized that students get highly motivated while working on projects that lead to new scientific knowledge and improving courses taught at the department.

Managing a Research Group

It is import for junior tenure-track faculty to demonstrate productivity of their research program as early as possible. Granting start-up funds is a significant investment for a department at MU. Thus, I felt that it was critical for me to

Nicole Famularo has been awarded the Schering-Plough Undergraduate Research Scholarship from the Independent College Fund of New Jersey
Nicole Famularo has been awarded the Research Scholarship from the Independent College Fund of New Jersey (ICFNJ) for her research project on “Integration of Chemistry Laboratory Instrumentation into the Industrial Internet”.

demonstrate that the department’s investment in my laboratory was meaningful. My research group worked hard, and as a result, our student researchers have earned multiple awards [] inside and outside of MU, small collaborative faculty-student research grants, and student scholarships provided by the Independent College fund of New Jersey (ICFNJ). It also helped to build on credibility of my mentoring and research plans. I was fortunate to recruit more highly-motivated students. In my group we took advantage of the peer mentoring approach (as Dr. Kalyani also pointed out earlier in her ChemCUR post. This approach helped to grow our team to eight students. Students worked on our research projects in three teams:

Team 1: “Designing and building environmentally friendly dye-sensitized solar cells containing non-toxic light harvesting organic and biological molecules (e.g. chlorophyllins)” led by Nicole Famularo;

Team 2: “Modeling molecular sensors in organic solvents of various polarities” led by Kevin Wioland;

Team 3: “Thermodynamic modeling of binding of potential anti-cancer drugs to DNA” led by Gary Prato

Sigma Xi Research Symposium at Saint Joseph's University
Our group: Omkaran Menon, Philip Donahue, Nicole Famularo, Kristen Flynn, Kevin Wioland, Samantha Silvent, Sammy Saka, and Gary Prato have presented five posters at the 25th Annual Saint Joseph’s University Sigma Xi Student Research Symposium in Philadelphia, PA (April 2014)

With the resources available at MU, my goal was to submit two grant proposals, to write one research and one educational manuscript annually. It is critical to publish papers in reputable peer-reviewed journals to convenience colleagues in the field of computational chemistry in my ability to advance my research projects. Next year over the winter break, I have developed the PyFREC software for modeling energy transfer in organic chromophores [J. Comp. Chem., 2016, 37(19), 1847-1854]. My research group further advanced it to model light-harvesting proteins [J. Comp. Chem., 2018, 39(8), 438-449].

I came to the realization that, for pragmatic reasons, it was important to have a concrete project that would likely to succeed, and another project of a high-risk, high-reward type. Later would be more likely to have a long-term impact and could become a part of a grant proposal.

I came to the realization that, for pragmatic reasons, it was important to have a concrete project that would likely to succeed, and another project of a high-risk, high-reward type.

Professional networking and collaborations also played an important role in my research. Participation in activities and events organized by CUR (e.g. CUR Dialogues), MERCURY (Molecular Education and Research Consortium in Undergraduate Computational Chemistry Conference) [], and Research Corporation (e.g. Cottrell Scholars Conference) were extremely encouraging and energizing, and led to new professional relationships and collaborations. I would like also to recommend two posts about the Cottrell Scholars program previously published at ChemCUR.

It was already the third year on a tenure track, when I submitted my revised grant proposal to the Research Corporation and was extremely fortunate to earn the Cottrell Scholar Award, and  an ACS-PRF grant the next year.



This summer Dr. Dmytro Kosenkov was promoted to Associate Professor of Chemistry with tenure at Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, New Jersey. His research group models quantum dynamics of exaction energy transfer and non-covalent intermolecular interactions contributing to the development of organic photovoltaics and potential anti-cancer drugs.

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