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Seeding a New Generation of Chemists

By Joshua Brown Article published September 3, 2008

For most high school students, a summer job does not involve mastering Schlenk tubes, Erlenmeyer flasks, sublimators, valve-bottom flasks, or several kinds of distillation apparatus. Nor does it involve managing an original research project, nor co-authoring a scientific paper for publication.

But for two students in Project SEED — a new effort at UVM run by assistant professor of chemistry Rory Waterman — it did. And with a good paycheck to boot.

A program of the American Chemical Society, “SEED works to encourage economically disadvantaged high school students to pursue chemistry by providing genuine summer research opportunities,” Waterman says. "This is not glass washing.”

The two students he mentored, Stephanie Chan and Amsal Karic, are both from South Burlington High School. This is the second year of SEED for Chan, who received a $3,000 stipend and was the inaugural member of the project at UVM in 2007.

She worked for eight weeks in Waterman’s lab, developing experiments to help his overall research goal of finding new ways to create bonds in phosphorous. This work advances an important area of basic chemistry that could have value in fields ranging from drug delivery to LED lights.

Her efforts focused on zirconium-phosphorus bonds, part of Waterman's search to discover new metal-catalyzed bond-forming reactions. As a result, Chan is a co-author on a paper about zirconium complexes that Waterman will be submitting for publication shortly.

And Karic, in his first year of the program, received a $2,500 stipend. He’s beginning his senior year at South Burlington. He worked in Waterman’s lab and also was mentored by Waterman’s colleague, Chris Landry.

“Science is not diverse enough,” says Waterman, who was concerned about limited diversity in candidates coming to interview for positions in his department. “We need to be doing something about this wherever we can — and as early as we can. By the time students are in college, it’s really too late.”

The National Science Foundation agrees. They awarded Waterman a $623,000, five-year CAREER grant in April to help develop his research on phosphorous-containing molecules. An important piece of the grant is that “underrepresented minority high school students will be encouraged to participate in summer research.”

Which means a lot of work for Waterman. “These are people with one high school chemistry course,” he says, “there’s a steep learning curve.”

But the investment seems to be paying off. “Before I started this, I was just mildly interested in chemistry,” Chan says, now a first-year chemistry major at Dartmouth College. “But this has been really fun. I’d been thinking of a medical career, but now I’m not sure. Maybe research.”