Return to Academia, Part 5: Conducting Research and Building Partnerships

For approximately 10 weeks during the summer of 2003, I conducted research as a National Science Foundation Research Opportunity Award Fellow (NSF ROA) at Furman and Clemson Universities. The purpose of this opportunity was to allow me and two of my Claflin University undergraduates to expand our research capabilities in polymer science. Tamara Griffith conducted research at Clemson University in Bill Pennington's laboratory while Dahlia Haynes did research at Furman University in Tim Hanks's laboratory. Interestingly, my first thesis student from Claflin, Ria Ramoutar, also worked in Pennington's lab this summer. She is now a graduate student at Clemson. I actually spent the majority of my time at Furman with Dahlia and Hanks.

A Typical Research Day

The chemistry department at Furman handled my housing arrangements and placed me in on-campus housing. I really liked the convenience of being so close to the lab. Usually, I would arrive at the laboratory around 9:00 a.m. and stay until about 6:00 p.m. I would first check my e-mail messages, then review my daily list of activities before plunging into my work for the day. Polymer science, like all other research disciplines, can be difficult, but Hanks's research team, composed of many wonderful undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students, helped me a great deal. They were all fantastic colleagues.

My research area focused on the synthesis and characterization of coordination polymers consisting of a metal bound to an organic molecule. These inorganic materials have optical, catalytic, and electrochemical applications. I conducted many reactions to form these polymers and as usual with research, things got off to a slow start. However, by the seventh week, I had made some progress. Because Hanks's team showed me how to grow crystals and helped optimize my reaction conditions, I actually made a new polymorph (new physical form) of one of the organic molecules. Pennington's group provided analysis of the exact structure of the molecule using x-ray crystallography. When I return to Claflin, I plan to continue the "art" of growing crystals and hope to generate more coordination polymers. I will publish this data in the future, but realize I have more work to do. My students' projects, however, were successful and will likely publish their findings soon.

Hanks and Pennington held combined lab meetings each week, so I presented my data at these gatherings. It was almost like graduate school, only this time I did not have to worry about defending my thesis again! To help with my research efforts, I frequently took advantage of library resources and talked with Pennington and Hanks. These guys helped define the direction of my research and were very supportive.

Social Events

During the summer at Furman, several activities were held for both faculty and students. These times away from the bench were very important because they provided a healthy outlet for some of the frustrations of research. These activities primarily involved the annual "Iron Man/Iron Woman" competitions, which included bowling, ping-pong, racquetball, and volleyball tournaments. I participated in the ping-pong tournament and quickly ended up in the loser's bracket. To cheer me up, one undergraduate said, "You looked good losing, and that's all that matters!"

In addition to these fun activities, I also attended a corporate luncheon at Furman in which students, faculty, and postdocs talked with representatives from various chemical companies. This luncheon was an example of the success Furman's chemistry department has experienced by building industrial partnerships that help support the university's research efforts. I also discovered during the luncheon that Furman has one of the largest visiting scientists research programs in the country. Some 72 students and faculty participated in their program this summer.

Final Thoughts

One of my goals for this summer was to ensure that my students were involved in a top-notch research internship. I recently asked one of them, "What did you find valuable about your summer research experience?" She replied, "The most beneficial part of this summer internship was learning many different techniques and laboratory procedures. This information will help me later when I enter graduate school." This was good to hear because I wanted my students to realize that these research opportunities allow them to advance in science. I also spoke with both of my colleagues about my students' progress and they were impressed with their level of maturity. Pennington stated, "The students were very well prepared, enthusiastic, and hard working."

This summer was beneficial to me for a variety of reasons. First, because I did not have teaching responsibilities, I had the opportunity to focus only on research. This was great, because finding a balance between teaching and research is often difficult. Second, I received some promising preliminary results that I plan to include in a proposal that I will submit later this year. Third, I expanded my professional network of scientists by meeting and working with great faculty and students doing outstanding research. Although most of my time during the academic year will be dedicated to teaching, I'll continue my research collaboration with Hanks and Pennington.

Thoughts of an Ex-Editor--Building Relationships Through MiSciNet

I am not building key professional relationships through academics alone. I am also building relationships through MiSciNet. For example, since I began writing this column, I have received several e-mail responses from students about the articles I've written. One student informed me that she was inspired by one of my articles and wanted to correspond with me for advising and mentoring purposes. A second student inquired about efforts to recruit more minority students to her university.

Receiving inquiries like these remind me that underrepresented students want and need guidance and will sometimes take the initiative themselves. However, the scientific community at large has to also make an effort to help them achieve their goals. I enjoy receiving correspondence because it makes what I am doing worthwhile-helping minority students excel in the sciences.

Sibrina Collins was editor of MiSciNet from 2001 to 2002. She is now assistant professor of chemistry at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Please e-mail her at

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