RIO GRANDE — The Chemistry Department at the University of Rio Grande is preparing for a first — a graduating class of chemistry majors from a program created three years ago.
“Being part of the first graduating class didn’t mean much to me then. It does now,” Sheri Marcum, a senior said. “I really had a lot of doubt about whether or not I could do this.”
Like the experiments students must conduct in their classes, the process of creating and delivering a new major uncovered the unexpected.
“I think students underestimate the power they have to impact a program,” said Jacob White, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry. “They’ve each contributed to the program in their own way. There is always that opportunity at Rio.”
An unexpected turn
Dr. White said when the Chemistry Department decided to offer a major, the plan was simple: sophomores use research templates; juniors meet in the middle in a “bridge” format; and seniors do original research.
The Provost’s Academic Excellence Initiative at Rio changed that plan. The grant affords student funding to work on special projects with their professors. In this case, the Chemistry Department leaders decided that the students would complete an experiment and present at the Ohio Academy of Science Annual Meeting. Nobody from the Rio Chemistry Department had ever presented at this prestigious meeting before.
“This peer review process is pretty intense,” John Means, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, explained. “The students were put through the ringer.”
In order to present at the Ohio Academy of Science Annual Meeting, students must provide original research. One year ahead of schedule, the junior chemistry majors were challenged beyond their expectations and would have to deal with a change in plans.
“The students dove into the deep-end of the original research pool,” Dr. White said.
A calming force
Marcum is used to stress.
“My children are older than my classmates,” she said when talking about her age.
For years, Marcum worked as a lab technician and although she was doing higher-level work could not receive a promotion without a four-year degree.
“I like a good challenge, and if you want a good challenge, further your education,” she said.
So Marcum enrolled at Rio majoring in chemistry. At one point, Marcum worked overnight, took a nap in the morning and went to class in the middle of the day. White and Means both said Marcum’s professional experience helped guide the entire department through the research and experimentation phase of their proposals. But Marcum just saw this as another day’s work.
“In the lab, it’s feast or famine,” she said.
A thorough review
Marcum said each student created an individual presentation, but all of her classmates offered a helping hand. After a peer review, all four abstracts received an invitation to present at the Ohio Academy of Science Annual Meeting.
“Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and being equal to others from different universities, it was a great sense of pride that you met the challenge,” Marcum said.
Not only was this the first time anyone from the Rio Chemistry Program presented in front of this statewide audience, they had just seven weeks to prepare when other universities had the entire academic year.
“We are extremely proud of these students,” Means said. “Things changed on the fly for them and they adapted quickly.”
A bright future
Experiments don’t always go as planned and, as he looks to the future, White says his biggest challenge is trying to find a way to top last year’s success.
“It was even more of a transformative experience than we had hoped for,” he said. “We could see the students’ confidence levels increase tremendously. That’s a gratifying experience.”
So, too, will watching the four students who walked into class three years ago experience one final year together. In May 2013, they will become the first graduating class of the newly redesigned Chemistry Program at the University of Rio Grande.
“Many think chemistry is unattainable if you’re out of school for a certain time, but the main thing is you have to be willing to work hard,” Means said. “If you set your mind to it and have the desire to work hard, it’s quite attainable.”
“Furthering your education pays for itself in the long run,” Marcum agreed. “By far.”