by Amy Whitesall, Published August 29, 2011
The American Chemical Society's Project SEED gives high school juniors and seniors a glimpse into the world of chemists-a unique chance to do eight weeks of summer research alongside university professors and their students.
But when Eastern Michigan's chemistry department hosted its first SEED students last summer, EMU professor Harriet Lindsay noticed something unanticipated taking root. The undergraduate research student who shared workspace with SEED student Crystal Smith became Smith's go-to-person for general questions about the lab - a mentor she could turn to when Lindsay wasn't around.
So Lindsay and colleague Maria Milletti brought a new twist to the Project SEED experience. This year the department's two SEED students have EMU mentors-summer research students with an added responsibility for smoothing the road for their high school counterparts. A $5,000 grant from the EMU chapter of Women in Philanthropy provides stipends for three mentors.
"We all have our research groups, and it's really easy to get isolated doing your own bit of science," Lindsay said. "The reason for making this intentional is so (Project SEED) students feel like they're part of the community, and so they don't feel like they're pestering anybody if they have a question. There's somebody whose job it is to help them."
This summer Smith, who recently graduated from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, is back for a second round in Lindsay's lab. The professor still oversees her research project-work with a reaction that could eventually lead to new tools for pharmaceutical production. Her mentor, EMU senior Jonathan Hurt, helped her get re-acquainted with lab techniques - and lab culture.
"This was about the science, but not just about the science," Hurt said. "At first it was basic lab stuff, but she was here last summer too, so a lot was just refresher (information). It was more about getting her comfortable in the lab, getting her acquainted with everyone and with the lab and how the place works."
The mentoring program is, in a sense, an extension of the chemistry department's longstanding philosophy when it comes to student research. Two of the four chemistry majors require students to spend time working with a professor in the lab, and the relationships built there can steer an entire academic career.
Assigning mentors to the SEED program lets EMU students step into a teaching role. Sometimes it's a very timely audition.
Hurt is a secondary education major heading into his final semester of coursework before student teaching. He hopes to teach high school chemistry, where he'll be working with students about the same age as Smith.
"You realize that to these students it's more than just the work," Hurt said. "It's not just about cramming the knowledge into their heads. Students get more excited about it if they're not just told, 'Do this,' and 'Do that.'"
Want to learn more about EMU's chemistry department? Go to http://www.emich.edu/chemistry.