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  • Dr. William H. Hersh
    A Faculty Member's Perspective on Undergraduate Research
    by William H. Hersh
    Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

    A number of years ago ("back in the '20's," as a current Queens College student who has worked in my lab likes to say, but really closer to 20 years ago), I spent a year carrying out my undergraduate research project. It was tremendously exciting - I had access to all this wonderful equipment that we did not have in the undergraduate lab, I could work in the lab all night if I wanted to, and best of all, the computer that ran the spectrometer I was using had an on/off button. This last part probably does sound like something out of the '20's, but there were no personal computers when I was an undergraduate, just main-frame computers that one connected to via a terminal, but never actually saw. But my mentor had not one but two stand-alone computers for his lab, PDP-10 computers about the size of a refrigerator, with reel-to-reel tape drives for the operating system, program and data collection.

    My project involved the synthesis of deuterated isomers of butadiene, taking their gas- phase IR spectra, analyzing every peak to calculate force constants, and then taking their gas- phase UV spectra (that was the part using the computer). The goal was the acquisition of data that would be compared to theoretical calculations, since at that time new-found computer power was allowing quantum mechanical calculations to be done on "big" organic molecules, of which butadiene was the simplest conjugated diene.

    Needless to say, I didn't finish my project - my mentor found two force fields that could fit my IR data, and decided only a 13C-substituted butadiene would allow him to tell which one was correct. As far as I can tell, the work was never published. But it was an invaluable experience. The most immediate result was getting into graduate school - my mentor explained to me that he would write a letter of recommendation and that would pretty much be enough. Chemists know each other and rely on each other, and that holds true for undergraduates applying from Queens College as well. The second effect of my undergraduate research was that it taught me I did not want to be a physical chemist - while I loved the research I did, I realized I wanted to do something different for the rest of my life. However, anyone who works in my lab knows that I have retained a love for the little numerical details that I perhaps picked up from that mentor.

    In my own lab, I have tried to provide the atmosphere I had as an undergraduate - full- time access to a lab, equipment, and computers, as well as to me as the mentor. I see undergraduate research as an essential component of any science degree. You cannot learn science without doing science, any more than you can learn an instrument without playing, or learn to write without writing. Undergraduate students who work in the lab are learning how to do science. They are learning the joys and frustrations of doing research, and if they are good and lucky, they will get something publishable, but primarily they are getting some hands-on experience, learning from their own mistakes and successes.

    So what is needed in order to provide access to undergraduate research? The simple answer is that a Ph.D. program must be in place. Queens College would not be an excellent undergraduate institution without its participation in Ph.D. research programs. The infrastructure for research - labs, equipment, chemicals - would not exist without a Ph.D. program, or at best would be very costly since no federal funds via grant support would be available to pay for these items. Even faculty who do not have continuous support will occasionally get grants, and these grants stock the lab with equipment and supplies for years to come. More importantly, without a Ph.D. program, faculty and graduate student mentors would not be available. It is important to recognize the teaching contributions made by people besides the faculty mentors; faculty really do have to teach classes and spend time writing grants and papers and doing all the little things that keep a lab running. During their absences from the lab it is the other researchers who provide guidance - graduate students and post-docs, and fellow undergraduates. But getting back to the faculty - those who are committed to doing research would not be here without Ph.D. programs, and the College, city, and state must be committed to supporting those programs. Perhaps this is at the heart of what seems to be a conflict at Queens College between "teachers" and "researchers," since support of these research programs costs money, and since some may think that we researchers are not "teaching." There should be no conflict, however: excellence in science education requires providing access to undergraduate research, and we have both at Queens College - excellence and research. The faculty will work and fight to maintain both, but we are under no illusions about how difficult these are to maintain in a college as compared to a university setting - they depend on money, continuity of support, and first-rate students who we hope will not be scared away by the continuous attacks on CUNY. I am delighted to witness the rebirth of the Nucleus, which will provide a forum to demonstrate the excellence and research of students at Queens College.

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    Last Updated April 23, 2000