Starting an Undergraduate Research Program at the Community College-Level

In this post, one faculty member reflects on the journey of starting an undergraduate research program at a community college where the challenges of teaching load and student interest can – at first – seem insurmountable. But at Queensboro Community College, undergraduate research in chemistry is now a part of the departmental culture, to the benefit of faculty and students.


Beginning as a tenure-track Organic Assistant Professor at a community college after earning a doctorate (and often completing a post-doctoral fellowship) from a respectable institution can be puzzling for a young scientist. That transition may be even traumatic. This young, enthusiastic chemist has been surrounded for years by professors, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students all aiming at establishing a synthetic pathway or justifying the mechanism that leads to the formation of an unexpected reaction product. This environment changes overnight to dealing with non-traditional college students whose reason for taking Organic Chemistry is solely to graduate or using this course as a stepping stone in joining a health sciences program. The same applies to any other faculty member with Chemistry, Biochemistry or Physics credentials.

The annual teaching load at a junior college is at least twice that of a primarily undergraduate college (PUI) which makes conducting research during the academic year difficult. Moreover, advanced instrumentation is unavailable, and the students are unlikely to stay past the second-year of their chemistry classes…

I was awarded a doctorate in organic chemistry from Georgetown University and continued my association with my alma mater by teaching the pre-med organic chemistry course there for 27 straight summers while still a tenure-track faculty member at CUNY’s Queensborough Community College (QCC). The annual teaching load at a junior college is at least twice that of a primarily undergraduate college (PUI) which makes conducting research during the academic year difficult. Moreover, advanced instrumentation is unavailable, and the students are unlikely to stay past the second-year of their chemistry classes, unlike the four-year institutions where undergraduate research is usually conducted at the junior and senior levels. Collaborating with a PUI and sharing their instrumentation may sometimes work, although the community college crew will always be seen as guests. Finally, the QCC administration would always frown upon this idea as the enrollment in science classes has always been significantly lower than those of common core or general education ones. After all, chemicals are expensive and disposing of the chemical waste can be significant in a small budget college.

paris_daisy_sandyFor all the above reasons, starting a research program at Queensborough was inconceivable for 19 years (1981-2000) until the arrival of a new college president whose doctorate was in biochemistry. Working with the first-ever research student, a Pakistani GED student, we needed nothing than a 60 MHz NMR to determine the relative concentrations of butadiene vs. pinacolone in the traditional pinacolone rearrangement procedure using different acid catalysts. She presented her findings at the 2000 ACS-NY section Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS; Fordham University) as an oral presentation and she served as the first ever community college student in 48 years to go through this experience. She subsequently presented her findings in a poster form at the National ACS Meeting in Washington DC in August of that year. The student’s work was eventually published in Tetrahedron Letters where the editor was a Yale professor. The student was a co-author on this peer-reviewed publication. This experience proved that a faculty needs to downgrade the sophistication of his/her research plans when the degree of instrumentation is not as sophisticated as the one used during his/her graduate studies.

Working with the first-ever research student, a Pakistani GED student…She presented her findings at the 2000 ACS-NY section Undergraduate Research Symposium…as the first ever community college student in 48 years to go through this experience.

chinaraTaking advantage of the diversity of our campus, I chose four students of different backgrounds (a Haitian, a Hispanic, a Korean and a Chinese) on various projects whose findings were also presented at several ACS conferences. More important was the fact that word of mouth spread around and each student introduced me to two friends of her cultural background. The registration in departmental courses expanded quickly, and new young faculty members were hired sharing the same vision and enthusiasm about research at the community college level. Since 2003 Queensborough’s students have outnumbered every single NY section institution at the annual ACS-NY section URS. Also, our institution hosted the event three times (2004, 2008 and 2015) as well as the MARM 2008 conference, the first time the event was held in New York City and the first time it was hosted by a community college. It was through this development and effort that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) decided to bestow me the honor of “Outstanding Community College Professor of the Year” in 2003 with the celebration taking place at the Washington Press Club and subsequent visit at the US Congress. It was the first time (and one of only two in history) that this award was made to a chemistry faculty member recognizing our effort to establish undergraduate research at the community college level.

eunchulkim_cnenews_2008The positive effects of undergraduate research at the community college are multifaceted both to the student and the faculty member. The student gets to learn firsthand that optimum undergraduate research results are obtained after a multitude of repeated experiments, many of which are often failures. This is in contrast to what is often taught in class, where statements and concepts are often brought about as “a matter of fact” by the instructor. As a result, this experience builds critical thinking, by identifying the sources of error that may be responsible for the occasional non-reproducibility of the experimental results. In addition, securing the funds for the students’ presentations at various conferences improves their self-confidence and ability to defend their findings and conclusions in front of other scientists. Finally, such accomplishments add to the students’ resumes in many cases leading to subsequent admission to prestigious programs and scholarship opportunities upon transfer to colleges and universities.

Because faculty request that research students participate in the research group for a minimum of three semesters, this creates a stratification of “senior” vs. “junior” members in the professor’s research lab as second-year students serve as “postdocs” to the incoming ones.

The faculty member also benefits from this experience since the enthusiasm he/she has when first joining a community college as a tenured-track faculty is sustained and further developed. “En masse” participation at conferences improves both the departmental homogeneity and the collegiality of both students and faculty. Because faculty request that research students participate in the research group for a minimum of three semesters, this creates a stratification of “senior” vs. “junior” members in the professor’s research lab as second-year students serve as “postdocs” to the incoming ones. The success and exposure of students to undergraduate research has allowed Queensborough to apply and receive competitive research grants- including NSF instrumentation, Department of Education, NSF/ATE and NSF/STEP sponsored ones. The crucial term of “sustainability” was partially overcome by requiring the students to register for an Honors-labeled class for every semester associated with research which demands that the student commit a minimum of 45 hours of bench time per credit per semester while providing partial release time to the mentor. The same terms apply to students who would complete internships at, either the Food or Drug Administration (FDA) in Jamaica NY or the New York City-Division of Environmental Protection (NYC-DEP) in Brooklyn NY. Conference presentations of their internship findings are also expected which contribute to the increasing number of student participants.

It is only appropriate that several Queensborough colleagues be acknowledged in the effort that led to this successful program. These include, but are not limited to, Drs. Sasan Karimi (chair-Chemistry), Nidhi Gadura (chair-Biology) as well as my fellow chemistry faculty Drs. Moni Chauhan, David Sarno, Jun Shin, Sharon Lall-Ramnarine, Tirandai Hemraj-Benny, Sujun Wei, Paul Sideris and Luis Vargas. The individualized attention toward our research students has led to their acceptance at more than 45 paid summer NSF-REU internships since 2007. Moreover, several QCC alumni/ae have been awarded Ph.D. fellowships in prestigious programs that include, but are not limited to, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, University of California, SUNY and CUNY. In addition, many others have continued at medical, dental, physician assistant, physical therapy as well as engineering related programs.


dr_svoronosParis Svoronos is a Professor of Chemistry at Queensborough Community College. At QCC, Dr. Svoronos and his colleagues have obtained over $3.5M in external funding to support undergraduate research at QCC.  His work inside and outside the classroom has been recognized through his receipt of several significant honors including in his selection by the CASE/Carnegie Endowment Foundation as the 2003 Outstanding Community College Professor of the Year, E. Ann Nalley Regional Award for Volunteer Service to the American Chemical Society in 2016, the Stanley C. Israel Regional Award for Advancing Diversity in the Chemical Sciences in 2018 and now Fellow of the American Chemical Society.

~this post first appeared in the CUR Chemistry Division Fall 2018 Newsletter


References:

  1. O. Gaglione, “Underground Existence of Research in Chemistry in Two-Year College Programs”  J. Chem. Educ., 2005, 82 (11), p 1613; DOI: 10.1021/ed082p1613
  2. P.D.N. Svoronos, “Building on Cultural Diversity To Create a Climate of Excellence at New York’s Queensborough Community College”  J. Chem. Educ., 2010, 87 (12), pp.1294-95; ISSN 0021-9584
  3. Gadura, P. Marchese and P. Svoronos “Increasing Retention, Graduation Through the Queens Borough Bridge STEP Program”Tapping the Potential of All: Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges, Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) Edited by Nancy H. Hensel, Brent D. Cjeda. 2014, pp. 103-109; ISBN: 0-941933-50-4.
  4. Svoronos,From Introductory Chemistry at the Community College Level to Post-Undergraduate Success: Strategies at Queensborough Community College that Secure the Success of Ethnically Diverse STEM Students.” Diversity in the Scientific Community” Volume 2: Perspectives and Exemplary Programs, Editors: Donna J. Nelson and H. N. Cheng (Peer-reviewed Book Chapter), Volume 1256, Chapter 9, pp 95-114, Publication Date (Web): October 26, 2017, Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society,ISBN13: 9780841232365,eISBN: 9780841232358,DOI: 10.1021/bk-2017-1256
  5. M.DeLezaeta, W. Sattar, P. Svoronos, S.Karimi and G. Subramaniam, “Effect of various acids at different concentrations on the pinacol rearrangement”, Tetrahedron Lett.43, 9307-09 (2002).

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