ACS Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 6 | p. 32 | Awards
Issue Date: February 5, 2007

ACS Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution

Department: ACS News
Credit: Courtesy of Cheryl D. Stevenson
Credit: Courtesy of Cheryl D. Stevenson

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"I love science and have so much fun working with students," says Cheryl D. Stevenson, a chemistry professor at Illinois State University, Normal. "The combination has made my job an absolute exciting blast." She gets a thrill out of seeing her students "go off to higher adventures." Stevenson sometimes shares those adventures by collaborating with former students who are establishing their careers.

Her enthusiasm is both contagious and effective. Stevenson has built a research program at an undergraduate institution that has drawn professors to the department in addition to preparing students for chemistry professions. She's received more than $2 million in external funding over the past 25 years, most of it used for research done with well over 100 undergrads and master's students. The results of their research have been published in more than 170 papers in top-tier journals. Thirty-one of those undergrads have gone on to earn chemistry Ph.D.s, and three more, including a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, are currently in Ph.D. programs.

At Illinois State, Stevenson has a reputation as a tough professor. Matthew Kiesewetter, a former student who is currently pursuing a chemistry Ph.D. at Stanford University, explains that Stevenson requires students to take responsibility for mastering the material that she covers in class. She is equally demanding in her laboratory, he continues, but "resoundingly supportive and motivational." Stevenson "inspires excitement about chemistry and unraveling the chemical puzzles at the forefront of her field," he says. A colleague adds that she "instills in undergraduate students a sense of confidence."

"As with any great experimental chemist," Kiesewetter says, Stevenson "has a vision of where her research should go. Where she is particularly successful with undergrads is in her ability to share that vision with them and to allow it to be perturbed by the students who are motivated enough to contribute their own ideas." He also points out that undergrads work directly with Stevenson "to truly understand their science and appreciate its place chemically and socially."

Stevenson is a physical organic chemist; she's interested in capturing fugitive molecules?ones that have escaped observation?that are of theoretical interest. "We often 'capture' these systems via the addition of an electron," she explains. "In 2004, we captured tri-[8]annulenylene this way." A communication on that work (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2004, 126, 8884) was selected as an Editors' Choice by Science. She and her current undergrad researcher are "chasing [14]annuldiyne, and we are having a super and educational time with it."

Stevenson's "sustained research productivity, both in quality and quantity, is awesome by any standards," says Steven J. Peters, a chemistry professor at Illinois State and a former student of Stevenson's. She's made significant contributions, including the first direct observation of Jahn-Teller distortion, which refers to a type of structural shift, in a perturbed aromatic system and incorporation of a cesium ion in the interior of a C60 anion.

Peters cites Stevenson's positive influence as his inspiration for completing a master's degree with her and a Ph.D. at Indiana University, Bloomington. He's collaborated with her through the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation Scholar-Fellow Program, and he uses her as a role model in his own mentoring of undergrad students.

Stevenson earned a B.S. in chemistry at California State University, San José, in 1964, and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Texas A&M, in 1969. After postdocs at the University of Texas, Austin, and Iowa State University, she joined the faculty of the University of Puerto Rico, RÍo Piedras, in 1970. Stevenson moved to Illinois State in 1977, where she is currently a distinguished professor of chemistry.

Illinois State has given Stevenson two high honors: the Arts & Science Lecturer Award and the Outstanding Researcher Award. She was named 2002 Chemist of the Year by ACS's Peoria Section, and she holds a patent based on an equilibrium isotope effect.

Stevenson is a physical chemist in another sense of the term: She's an avid triathlete and has competed several times in the IronMan Triathlon in Hawaii. She says she does some of her best thinking while training, and several of her students have followed in these footsteps as well.

The award address will be presented before the Division of Organic Chemistry.


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