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Community Colleges Tackle Research

Chemistry students and faculty at two-year schools increasingly produce publishable results

by Rachel Petkewich
October 16, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 42

Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Higgins
Students Salome Njeri (top) and Angel Butron are currently doing research with Higgins at Harold Washington College.
Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Higgins
Students Salome Njeri (top) and Angel Butron are currently doing research with Higgins at Harold Washington College.

For designing a novel method for synthesizing peptides, Bruce Merrifield won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1984. Like thousands of other students, the late biochemist's formal training began at a community college.

Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Higgins
Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Higgins

The U.S. Department of Education reports that 73% of all undergraduates attend a two-year college at some point during their undergraduate studies, and according to the American Association of Community Colleges, community colleges enroll 45% of all undergraduate students in the U.S. Many students who enter community college with interests in science eventually transfer to a four-year institution.

Increasingly, community college chemistry faculty???most of whom hold Ph.D. degrees from large research universities???are providing research opportunities for their students. Their work was highlighted at a session in the Division of Chemical Education during the American Chemical Society national meeting in San Francisco last month.

Associate professor of chemistry Kaveh Zarrabi has been doing research with his students at the Community College of Southern Nevada (CCSN) since 1995. He holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the Colorado School of Mines and worked as a researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for several years. He started research at CCSN in part because, as he told C&EN, "I didn't want to stop learning." Zarrabi also believes that research is a good tool for helping students succeed in their education and that that success translates to building confidence in other parts of their lives.

"These students are so enthusiastic, and they assume ownership in no time," he said, and their grades often improve after working on a research project. Zarrabi said that he will work with any student who wants to do research, regardless of their academic history. The projects center on extracting and analyzing active ingredients from indigenous plants that the students collect locally. Students also examine the antimicrobial and antifungal properties of the extracts. He has brought students to present posters at regional and national meetings. Of his more than 60 research students in the past decade, Zarrabi said, 90% have pursued advanced degrees. "I can truly say I had better luck with my undergraduate students in a two-year college than many of my colleagues who teach in graduate schools."

A new push for including first- and second-year undergraduates in academic research programs has opened doors for community colleges. In the past five years, the Division of Chemistry at the National Science Foundation, among others, has started to allocate grant money for instrumentation at the undergraduate level, including in community colleges. "And now you see people at community colleges do more and more research," Zarrabi said.

Thomas B. Higgins has the same idea. He is the principal investigator on a five-year, $2.7 million Undergraduate Research Collaborative (URC ) grant from NSF that went into effect on Oct. 1. He is an associate professor of chemistry at Harold Washington College, one of the seven schools in the City Colleges of Chicago system. The URC grant involves 10 community colleges and three baccalaureate-granting institutions in the Chicago area and will provide on- and off-campus research opportunities for 300 community college students. It will also allow the community colleges to purchase $200,000 worth of instrumentation in the first year.

"Community colleges aren't nonresearch institutions," Higgins said, but little money is available to acquire and maintain analytical instrumentation.

"Research, especially in the sciences, is becoming so much a part of the expected undergraduate experience that if community colleges are really going to prepare students for what is going on at the four-year schools," he added, "I think that research is going to have to be a part of every community college student's experience."

Higgins didn't initially have student research as a goal. "When I was coming out of my graduate work at Northwestern University, I knew I wanted to be a professor at a small school, and I thought that would mean primarily teaching," Higgins told C&EN. After the first semester at a community college without research, he realized how much he missed experimentation and discovery, and a student approached him about doing research.

Higgins spoke with his doctoral adviser, Chad A. Mirkin. They worked out a way for Higgins and the student to spend a summer doing research at Northwestern. Higgins has since developed other collaborations with other nearby colleges and universities so his students can use high-end instrumentation or do work during the summer, which isn't possible at community college facilities.

Over the past six years, Higgins has worked with 14 students on projects that include ligand synthesis, nanoscale phase separation, and environmental toxicology. Last year, the Journal of the American Chemical Society published a paper that included one of his students as a coauthor. Another student's work became a chapter of a thesis for a doctoral student in Mirkin's lab. Developing joint research programs and mentoring students are big factors in getting community college students ready to transfer to a four-year school and hopefully on to a graduate program, he said.

Higgins added that research programs at community colleges are a good way to boost the number of minorities in the pipeline. Many of the minority groups that are underrepresented in the sciences are plentiful on community college campuses. Nearly half of all black undergraduates and more than half of Latino and Native American students attend community college.

It's an exciting time, Higgins said. "I find there are more and more people scattered around who are doing research with their students at community colleges," he added. But it's an uphill battle with administrators at most community colleges. "It's still not an accepted part of a community college experience," Higgins noted.

For faculty and student involvement in research to be sustainable, the community college infrastructure must evolve in a way that decreases teaching loads, rewards innovation, and fosters partnerships between academic institutions, said Jodi L. Wesemann, assistant director for higher education at ACS.

Zarrabi and Higgins acknowledged support from their colleges' administrations. In spite of the issues of implementing research programs at community colleges, they remain optimistic about the future of these programs in the next decade.


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