Taking the Next Step: UWG chemistry students go beyond research

Sermacsby Bryan Lindenberger

“Undergraduate research has always been a pillar of our department,” said Dr. Victoria J. Geisler, associate professor of chemistry at University of West Georgia.

“Faculty is joining with them, saying, ‘Let’s take the next step. Let’s not only do the research, but now let’s present it to a wider audience.’”

That is exactly the step taken as 18 undergraduate chemistry students presented their research findings at the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society (SERMACS) in Charlotte, N.C.

Among the students who presented at the prestigious conference was Jacob Sudduth, a UWG senior who gave an oral presentation before a packed room. His subject? Polysubstituted phenols and the reactivity of certain compounds based on their structure.

“For me, it was a great opportunity to present the research that I’ve been working on for the past couple of years,” Sudduth said of the conference. “It was really nice to have that culmination of everything I’ve done and to present to a group of people who understood and give important feedback.”

Sudduth, who plans to attend medical school, also saw the event as a great networking opportunity.

“It was also nice because of all the graduate schools represented there," he said. "If medical school didn’t work out, I would definitely go to graduate school, so it was positive to have that exposure and get a feel for the process.”

Chemistry department chair Dr. Sharmistha Basu-Dutt shared the enthusiasm of her students and colleagues and noted that UWG has never before had so many students present their work at this annual conference.

“It is important that the students are supported not only for doing research, but that they gain experience in presenting their findings,” said Basu-Dutt. “This is all in line with the LEAP initiative, because this is all experiential learning.”

LEAP, or Liberal Education and America’s Promise, refers to a national initiative adopted by UWG as LEAP West. The initiative goes beyond rote, classroom learning to emphasize real world learning situations, completion of major projects and contact with society through internships or, as in this case, presentations at esteemed conferences.

Held by the American Chemical Society, whose stated mission is to “advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people,” the topic of this year’s SERMACS conference was “Humans to Hybrids.” This left a door wide open for students to show the wide breadth of research occurring at the undergraduate level. Topics presented by UWG students included antioxidants, ultrasonication, green chemistry, nanomaterials, synthesis of anti-cancer drugs and other topics.

Dr. Anne Gaquere, associate professor of chemistry at UWG, also presented her research in chemistry and art with work title, “Creating safe mini-laboratory activities to engage non-science majors in a chemistry course: How chemistry of art can help in the context of an experiential learning curriculum.”

While 18 students in attendance was a record-breaking number for UWG – previous years generally saw fewer than five students – Basu-Dutt was certain to point out each of the students earned his or her place with solid and substantive research.

“You do not want to send a student who is ill-prepared,” she says, noting that one of the greatest benefits of attendance is learning to present before an audience of peers and confidence-building.

Student presenters included Mariam Abge, Victoria Buth, Jordan Davoll, Catherine Fairchild, Adam Hand, Stasha Hopkins, Andre Jackson, Brian King, Aminah Lerman, Kimberly Marroquin, Adam Milam, Zachary Nofs, Abigail Patanao, Mary Salyards, Nicolas Scafidi, Andrew Sennett, Sudduth and Mailei Zhang-Smith.

Funding support was provided by LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation), SRAP (Student Research Assistant Program), Federal Work Study, student activity fees and offerings of class credit, as well as travel funds from the dean’s office of the College of Science of Mathematics.

The years of study and research, faculty mentorship, and the opportunity to present findings at a major, professional conference has certainly impacted student lives. But a warm smile brightens Sudduth’s face at a more personal level when asked what his most important memory from the trip is.

“Just hanging out with my friends,” he said. “We were there for the conference, but in the evenings, we could kind of roam around and do our own thing. It was nice to be able to spend time with our friends and the faculty in that leisure kind of state.”

Posted on December 14, 2017