TLU’s Chemistry Department is the recipient of a $120,000 Welch Foundation grant to support faculty and student projects. As one of the nation’s largest private funding sources for fundamental chemical research at universities, colleges, and other educational institutions in Texas, the Welch Foundation provides an opportunity for students to gain invaluable experience in laboratory research.
Additionally, the Welch Foundation grant program provides students with the tools they need to gain and develop an interest in pursuing a career in chemistry, as well as scholarship support, lab equipment, and travel to industry meetings and conferences. The foundation has been supporting TLU for the last 45 years and this recent award is the largest one to date.
“The grant allows our department to support undergraduate summer research funding for the next three years,” Dr. Mike Ruane, Chemistry Department chair said. “Last year, all four full-time faculty participated in summer research, and nine undergraduates were able to complete the six-week program. Several students from the summer program have continued that research over the course of the fall semester to maintain an ongoing research presence on campus.”
The continued funding by Welch allows the Chemistry department to do more research and increase scholarly presentation, which, in turn, increases the chances of obtaining research funding in the future. An increase in research funding will grant more opportunities for TLU BEAKER scholars in the future.
“BEAKER stands for “Building Excellence by Advancing Knowledge through Experimental Research,” Dr. Ruane said. “That name encapsulates what happens to students in our program. Once they get into the flow of research and getting results, they don’t want to stop. BEAKER scholars have opportunities to travel to conferences, present research, and mentor other students in the program. Being a BEAKER scholar also makes a student more attractive to employers and graduate or professional programs, like medical schools.”
Some of the faculty-led research projects include:
- The development of therapeutic biomaterials (Assistant Professor Dr. Jacques Jean-Francois)
- Generating chiral pyranones for the industrial synthesis of less-expensive pharmaceuticals (Chemistry Department Chair Dr. Mike Ruane)
- The exploration of neocuproine and its derivatives as potential drug candidates for treating Alzheimer’s Disease (Assistant Professor Dr. Rachel Chupik Adams)
- The presence of contaminant metals in edible plants and consumer products (Associate Chemistry Professor Dr. Alison Bray)
In 2013, Dr. Bray received an E. Kika De La Garza grant from the U.S Department of Agriculture and “Team Rice” began examining arsenic uptake by rice plants. Now in their eighth year, Team Rice’s initial research has sparked many new projects, like investigating other foods for metal or metalloid contamination like basil, measuring potential contaminants in a wide variety of commercial dog foods, and trying to make a polymer that will absorb contaminants like arsenic from the water before the plants are grown.
Dr. Bray says being part of projects like the ones she and her colleagues are leading is critical to student engagement.
“Students become much more invested in their classroom work when they can see the reward in taking this knowledge into the lab and using it to solve problems,” she said. “At larger research institutions, faculty-led research is typically reserved for graduate students. At TLU, we can get students involved in research much earlier. This is a great way to open their eyes to the many diverse avenues where chemistry is the foundation. It allows them to try one facet of chemistry, such as environmental or medicinal research, without the long-term commitment that graduate studies require. Many students think they know coming in what they want to pursue in the future and a faculty-led research experience can change that. Often after a summer research experience here at TLU, they find a completely new direction that interests them.”
By participating in research early on in their college career, Dr. Ruane says the experience fosters student enthusiasm and interest in pursuing a STEM degree.
“Students get the experience of seeing how the content that they learned in class applies to real-world problems,” he said. “Science is a field where the investigation is part of its DNA. Research is the application of that curiosity. Students working with faculty will experience the highs and lows of research. For some students, research is not something they will want to pursue, and that’s better to discover at the undergraduate level. For others, finding answers to problems through research highlights the value of science. Learning how to approach problems from an unbiased scientific viewpoint and devising strategies to solve those problems forms graduates with honed problem-solving skills.”
Pictured above: Dr. Jacques Jean-Francois with students John R. Sanchez and Quetzalli Alaves.