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Department History and Culture

Undergraduate Research at UWEC: A Strong Tradition, and Greater
Promise for the Future


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The mission of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UWEC) is “liberal arts education across the disciplines” with a unique and ever-increasing focus on experiential learning, of which undergraduate research is the hallmark. As such, UWEC became the UW System’s designated Center of Excellence for Faculty and Undergraduate Student Research Collaboration in 1989. Initially, the undergraduate research “culture” was cultivated by students and faculty in the Chemistry department, but has since spread across the entire campus. At this point, UWEC Chemistry has an established record of quality undergraduate instruction that begins with well-developed courses taught entirely by Ph.D. faculty and builds on this solid foundation by involving students in collaborative research projects. These activities are an inseparable part of teaching at UWEC, because they effectively integrate formal course work with the more open-ended problem solving activities of practicing chemists. Moreover, as external support from NSF and other agencies has been integral to the overall success of the department and has given UWEC students access to cutting edge research, continued support will bolster the program even further, and is essential to maximize the impacts of previous grants.

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In her book, Revitalizing Undergraduate Science, Sheila Tobias praised the UWEC Chemistry program for its student-friendly atmosphere, numerous research opportunities for undergraduates, and in particular, a seemingly unique ability to attract first generation college students to science. First generation college students are a relatively untapped pool when viewed in terms of advancing domestic students to graduate programs. As a whole, the UWEC student body is about 60% female, nearly half matriculate from Eau Claire and the surrounding seven rural counties, and over 50% of entering freshman are first generation college students.  Chemistry major enrollment has boomed to over 300 currently thus increasing our impact on the first-generation science pipeline. Our students possess solid academic skills and great potential for intellectual growth. One indication of this ability is that 40% of incoming freshman rank in the top 25% of their graduating high school classes. 

Due to a large number of low income/first generation students, as well as its success in preparing women for advanced study in underrepresented fields, UWEC was awarded a Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement grant (a TRIO program sponsored by the Department of Education). This program provides hands-on mentoring for students from underrepresented groups, including targeted preparation for graduate school, with the intent of steering them toward careers in higher education. In the first two years of this program, four chemistry students were selected as McNair Scholars, more than any other department. Of these students, three were women, one was low/income first generation, and at this point all have nearly completed their Ph.D. degrees. Since the program was started in 2000, 117 UWEC graduates (including 13 Chemistry/Biochemistry majors) have completed this program, and 90% of these students entered graduate programs within a year of graduation..

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Along these lines, UWEC has received NSF funding for an REU Site: Collaborative Undergraduate Research Experiences in Chemistry (CURE CHEM) (2008-2011). This REU site is designed to support and enfranchise underrepresented students from 2-year colleges by engaging them in a research experience. Though the program supports only 8 students per summer, it has been catalytic in producing a very active summer research program within the Chemistry department, with approximately 30 students participating in the various REU sponsored events these past two summers, including weekly seminars presentations, a writers workshop, and a capstone symposium at the end of the summer. The students who are funded by this project will be encouraged as well to participate in these activities.

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In chemistry, the myriad of research opportunities stems from a core group of young and enthusiastic faculty with diverse interests, together with several senior faculty that have a record of sustained funding from external agencies including PRF, RC, NSF and NIH. Four members of our current faculty have received the prestigious Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation teacher-scholar awards. UWEC as the only public institution among an elite group of only four undergraduate institutions that have received four such awards among their faculty.  According to Research Corporation data, between 1986 and 2000, UWEC chemists obtained 51 grants from NSF, PRF, Research Corporation, and NIH, placing them in the top 1% a in a poll of 1115 predominantly undergraduate institutions. Clearly, UWEC has an impressive track record of external funding, and the successes of the younger faculty are a good indicator that opportunities for undergraduate research at UWEC will continue. More recently, in the period ranging from 2004-2008, the department also received over 50 competitive, external grants which brought over $4,400,000 into the program.
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One key facet of the UWEC undergraduate research experience is hands-on experience with an impressive array of modern instrumentation. In 1991, the Department was the first recipient of a Department Development Grant from a new program sponsored by the Research Corporation (C&E NEWS June 17, 1991 p. 7). This award recognized the past accomplishments of Chemistry faculty and students at UWEC as well as our potential for growth and development. The Research Corporation grant, together with additional funds from University and third parties greatly enhanced the Chemistry program at UWEC by providing funds to support scholarly projects of students and faculty, curriculum development, and equipment acquisition. By the completion of the grant in 1997, the Department had acquired new equipment worth more than $750,000, with greater than $400,000 of the total funding coming from third parties. This included the initial purchase of a 400 MHz NMR, UV-visible spectrophotometers, a UHV chamber and instruments for surface analysis, HPLC's, a peptide synthesizer, an electrochemical analyzer, as well as computers. Subsequently, other instruments have been added including a single-crystal X-ray diffractometer, two optical cryostats for matrix isolation spectroscopy, a polarimeter, computational software and workstations, a laser laboratory, a surface analysis chamber, an LC/TOF-MS, stopped-flow CD/UV-Vis spectrometer, spectrofluorimeter, and three new FTIR spectrometers with diffuse reflectance and ATR accessories. Furthermore, a Materials Science Center has been established through a collaboration between UWEC chemists and physicists which provides technical assistance to area businesses and state-of-the-arts material science instrumentation including AFM. STM, ICP-MS, XPS and XRF. This center was sparked by two NSF-MRI awards, which funded the acquisition of equipment for scanning tunneling microscopy and low-energy electron diffraction and an X-ray photoelectron spectrometer. Just recently, an upgrade of the 400MHz NMR, two new HPLC’s, and an LC-MS have been obtained via NSF-MRI and NSF-CCLI funds. We also have a 7-node, 56 CPU computational cluster which has been used by students for research projects as well as upper level course work. In fact, this state-of-the-art instrumentation is used almost exclusively by undergraduates for coursework and research projects, and this hands-on experience renders students exceptionally well prepared for graduate studies and/or careers in the chemical industry. Ultimately, continued support from external agencies is essential to provide supplies and human resources, and further the impacts of these instrumentation grants.

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In any event, we have capitalized on the opportunities the stem from both funding and modern equipment, by establishing a strong record of research productivity as measured by publication of student-coauthored manuscripts and presentations by students at regional and national meetings. Between 1999 and 2008, Chemistry faculty published over 160 peer-reviewed papers or patents with more than 125 undergraduate student coauthors. Several of these papers were published in high-impact journals, including: Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Journal of the American Chemical Society; as well as top journals within given sub-fields, such as: Journal of Physical Chemistry, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Biochemistry and Journal of Chemical Physics. In the same period, faculty and students made over 180 off-campus research presentations at professional conferences, in addition to numerous posters at Student Research Day. Over the period 2004-2008, we published more peer-reviewed articles than any other UW System comprehensive (approximately 57% more than the second-placed program), and our published abstracts from major conferences number over five times that of the next-nearest program.

One other positive impact of the Department's research emphasis is that a high percentage of UWEC graduates go on to attend graduate or professional schools. Moreover, approximately fifty percent of the recent UWEC Chemistry graduates pursuing advanced degrees are female. In the past five years, >40 students have matriculated to top Ph.D. programs. The data complied by the NSF on baccalaureate origins of Ph.D. chemists clearly demonstrates the program's effectiveness in preparing students for advanced study. Among peer comprehensive institutions in the Upper Midwest, UWEC is ranked #1 as a baccalaureate origin of Ph.D. chemists over the entire period of NSF record-keeping (1966 to present). Moreover, this ranking reflects only our chemistry majors who enter graduate programs in chemistry and does not count the comparable number of Biochemistry/Molecular Biology or Chemistry graduates who pursue graduate studies in the biochemical or biophysical sciences.

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Perhaps the greatest overall benefit of the student research experience is its educational impact, and in 1993, the UWEC Chemistry Department received the first UW System Departmental Teaching Award, for which all departments among the 13 comprehensive University of Wisconsin System campuses were eligible. The Department's award application was based on the integration of high-quality formal course work and undergraduate research as a powerful means of teaching students and preparing them for advanced study or careers in the private sector. In the fall of 1999, and again in 2003, the Department was one of ten recipients of a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Jean Boissevain Undergraduate Scholarship for Excellence in Chemistry. Institutions receiving this award were “identified by the Foundation's Board on the basis of accomplishments in the chemical sciences.” This recognition also places UWEC in very elite company, as evidenced by the list of 2003 recipients: California Institute of Technology, College of William and Mary, Columbia University, Furman University, Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Western Washington University.

Alumni donations to the Department are yet another indication of the programs’ impact on students, and have averaged more than $15,000 per year over the past few years. Among other programs, these funds enable the Department to present an impressive array of awards and scholarships at the annual Student Awards Banquet. Last year, for example, 18 students (9 female) were awarded departmental awards and scholarships totaling over $10,000.

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Perhaps most importantly, the University's administration is committed to promoting research as an important element of undergraduate education, and has maintained its support through a period of major cuts in state funding. The UWEC Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP), supports faculty-student collaborative research projects across all disciplines via internal grant programs that provide funds for student stipends during the summer and academic year, modest summer stipends for faculty, as well as travel. The department also continues to receive excellent University support in the form of matching funds for external grant proposals and competitive faculty hiring start-up packages. Furthermore, the administration offers federal grant holders a 20% reassignment of teaching load in order to devote more time toward research, which is quite generous given the upward trend in teaching loads at UWEC over the past few years.

In summary, the Chemistry Department at UWEC has a solid record of undergraduate education and research accomplishment. This stems from a unique combination of bright, hard-working students, a productive, ambitious faculty, and a supportive administration willing to commit limited resources to sustain quality programs.


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