Issue Date: February 18, 2008
Harvesting Project SEED
For Claire A. Tessier, the summer of 1970 was a turning point. “Very important things happened to me that summer,” she says. “I grew up a lot.”
Then a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School, in Hinesburg, Vt., Tessier was selected to participate in Project SEED, the American Chemical Society’s social action program that provides summer research experiences to economically disadvantaged high school students. For 10 weeks, she worked side-by-side with other members of Claus A. Wulff’s chemistry lab at the University of Vermont.
Tessier remembers successfully performing a recrystallization of a compound that an undergraduate had been having difficulty with. She also recalls the time a graduate student was surprised to learn that she was only a high school student.
Asked how she can so vividly recall details from a summer nearly 40 years ago, Tessier replies: “Those were just really important moments. I think they were moments that really gave me direction,” she says. “They were victories, big victories.”
Tessier’s poignant testimony is just one of thousands of success stories that organizers of Project SEED hope to unearth as the program passes its 40-year mark this year. Since Project SEED started in 1968, more than 7,400 high school students have participated in the program.
“It’s important to track these students because it’s one of the ways to measure the success of the program,” says Cecilia Hernandez, staff liaison to the Council Committee on Project SEED. “We want to know whether the program has made a difference in their lives.”
J. Philip Bays, chair of the Council Committee on Project SEED and a professor of chemistry at Saint Mary’s College, in Notre Dame, Ind., says the committee is undertaking a large-scale effort to find out what happened to former Project SEED participants. But this task is a difficult one because alumni continue to change jobs, e-mail addresses, and even names.
C&EN’s own efforts to track down former Project SEED participants illustrates just how challenging it can be to reconnect. We first approached long-time coordinators of the program, who are responsible for matching students with mentors and research projects, and asked them to provide names and contact information for their former students. This yielded some results, but we knew it was just the tip of the iceberg.
Armed with lists of past participants, we began googling names. The more unusual names gave the best results, as common names yielded hundreds of irrelevant hits. Women were virtually impossible to find because their last names often change after marriage.
In the end, we tracked down nine former participants and asked them to share their stories. We learned that five of the alums pursued careers in chemistry either in academia, industry, or government, while two of them entered medical-related fields. One of the former Project SEED students became an advocate for children’s issues, and another is now an attorney. All of the former students we tracked down are extremely successful, and all say that Project SEED helped them realize their full potential.
“One of the things to emphasize is that although chemistry is important, the real goal of the program is to show these kids what unimagined opportunities they really have,” says Bays.
Tessier says that Project SEED gave her the confidence she needed to pursue a career in chemistry during a time when few women were entering the field. She remembers watching a female graduate student in the lab become exasperated with her research to the point of tears. “It was an important lesson to learn that you have to tough it out, and it wasn’t going to be easy,” says Tessier.
Many admitted that before they participated in Project SEED, they had limited knowledge of what career options were available to them. “Project SEED opened my eyes to the opportunities within science,” says Kevin W. Hunt, who participated in Project SEED in 1989 and has been a medicinal chemist at Colorado-based Array BioPharma for six years. “Before that, I didn’t really know exactly what I could do with a science degree,” he says.
Hunt grew up in Texas on a small farm in a rural community from which few people left to go to college. There were only seven students in his high school graduating class and few options for science electives. “Nobody wanted to go into chemistry,” he says. “They didn’t see the potential.” He says Project SEED gave him the opportunity to meet other high school students who were interested in science. “To actually run into kids who have very similar aspirations was as encouraging as the program itself.”
Marc A. McKithen, who participated in Project SEED in 1991 and is now an attorney specializing in chemical and pharmaceutical patent litigation at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, in New York City, also credits Project SEED with sparking his interest in science. “I would not have studied chemistry if I hadn’t participated in Project SEED,” he says.
McKithen, whose parents ran a small janitorial business, comes from a family of eight children. He says that he was the only one to have majored in a science in college. “Before I did Project SEED, I had never met a Ph.D. chemist, or any other Ph.D. scientist for that matter,” McKithen says. “The only doctors that I knew were physicians, and that’s because they were my personal physicians.”
For Kris L. Sperry, participating in Project SEED in 1970 had an additional benefit: It gave him access to the University of Kansas’ science library. After work and on weekends, Sperry would go to the library and read about different topics. One day, he stumbled across some books on forensic pathology, and he was hooked. “It was the opportunity of getting into a science library that opened the door to allow me to discover what I do now,” says Sperry, who is now chief medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
After participating in Project SEED, Sperry went on to major in biology and minor in chemistry at Kansas State College of Pittsburg. In 1978, he received an M.D. from the University of Kansas School of Medicine. He completed a pathology residency at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in 1985, followed by a fellowship in forensic pathology with the office of the Medical Investigator for the State of New Mexico.
To date, Sperry has performed more than 6,000 autopsies, some of them involving high-profile cases such as the double murder-suicide of pro-wrestler Chris Benoit and his family and the murder of Meredith Emerson, the Georgia hiker whose body was found earlier this year.
Sperry says his most interesting assignment was six years ago when authorities discovered that a crematory in northern Georgia was running a scam business and hiding all of the bodies. “We recovered 339 bodies and we had to identify as many as possible and return them to their family members,” he says. “That ate up about five months of my life.”
Imelda Udo, who participated in Project SEED in 1990, also pursued a career in medicine and is now an obstetrician/gynecologist in Westminster, Md. She says she knew at an early age that she wanted to become a doctor and credits her Project SEED experience with helping her land a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md. From there, she went on to earn a B.S. in biology from nearby Johns Hopkins University and an M.D. from George Washington University.
Like Tessier, Udo has vivid memories of her summer with Project SEED. “I remember flooding the lab,” says Udo of a distillation gone awry. She also remembers getting lots of help when it came time to study for her learner’s permit for driving. “All the graduate students stopped working so they could help me study for the test,” she says.
Several of the former Project SEED participants were drawn to careers in chemistry. Some went into academia while others pursued careers in industrial or government labs.
Tessier is now a chemistry professor at the University of Akron. After graduating from high school in 1971, she went on to receive a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Vermont. In 1982, she received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the State University of New York, Buffalo. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University, she taught for a year at the University of Rhode Island and then worked as an instructor and research associate at Case Western Reserve University. She also spent a semester as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
David N. Blauch, who participated in Project SEED in 1979, also pursued a career in academia. Now a professor of chemistry at Davidson College, in North Carolina, Blauch says that Project SEED gave him the tools to advance his interest in chemistry. Prior to participating in Project SEED, Blauch’s knowledge of chemistry was limited to what he had read in chemistry books he borrowed from the public library and what he had learned from simple experiments he performed in his basement chemistry lab.
After participating in Project SEED, he began performing syntheses that he says were usually done in a college organic chemistry course. “Project SEED opened the door to that college-level chemistry,” he says. “I became much more advanced in the types of things I was interested in and the types of experiments I was willing to try.”
Blauch went on to receive a B.S. in chemistry from Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, Pa., and a Ph.D. in chemistry from California Institute of Technology.
Industry is another attractive option for Project Seed alumni. Bernie Olsen, for example, participated in Project SEED in 1970 and is now a senior research fellow in analytical sciences R&D at Eli Lilly & Co., in Indianapolis. He still remembers when his work on ligand exchange kinetics at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, earned him a spot in the acknowledgements section of the research paper published by his Project SEED mentor.
For a high school student, that was a big deal, he says, adding that the confidence he gained that summer helped him make a decision to go into analytical chemistry. “It makes more of an impact than you think at the time,” he says. Olsen went on to receive a B.S. in chemistry from Nebraska Wesleyan University, in Lincoln, and a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has been with Lilly for the past 28 years, and he and his wife just became grandparents.
Hunt also Plans on staying in industry. He says his experience in Project SEED ultimately led him to receive several academic scholarships, which helped pay for college. Hunt received a B.S. in chemistry from Tarleton State University and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry with Paul A. Grieco at Indiana University. He completed a postdoc in the lab of K. C. Nicolaou at Scripps Research Institute.
“My parents would have found a way for me to go to college, but I wouldn’t have known my path, and finding your path is so important in being focused, especially when you have limited finances. You can’t really mess around looking at different majors,” says Hunt.
Government labs have also benefited from the expertise and enthusiasm of former Project SEED students. For example, Peter Wong participated in Project SEED in 1977 and is now a research scientist with the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. Wong says he always knew he liked science, but it wasn’t until after he worked in Richard Keys’ lab at California State University, Los Angeles, that he decided to go into chemistry. Prior to that summer, he had thought about going into art.
At Cal State, Wong worked on computer programs that perform molecular orbital calculations and learned how to use an electron paramagnetic resonance spectrometer. He says he had to learn computer programming on the fly and remembers not fully understanding what all the calculations meant. Still, he was fascinated by the process and really enjoyed the work. “We had studied orbitals in high school chemistry, and now somebody was actually doing the calculations,” he says, referring to theoretical chemists and also to himself.
Not everyone came out of Project SEED convinced that they wanted to be a scientist. “In all candor, I came out of that experience thinking that maybe research isn’t for me,” says Paola Maranan, who participated in Project SEED in 1979. “It was an incredible experience, and when you’re 16 years old and somebody treats you like you’re smart, serious, and competent, that does a lot for how you see yourself in the world.”
Maranan went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University. She worked for several years on civil rights issues in Alabama. Today, Maranan is executive director of the Children’s Alliance, a public policy advocacy organization in Washington state.
Even if a Project SEED graduate does not choose a career in chemistry, a background in chemistry helps. Maranan says that Project SEED provided her with a strong foundation in data management and critical thinking. “There’s such an intense connection between Project SEED and the work that I do now,” she says. “It would be easy to say that there’s not a connection, but I work with data and analysis every day.”
Sperry also uses chemistry every day in his job. “In forensic pathology, we deal with drug metabolism and toxicology on a daily basis to interpret what caused somebody’s death,” he says. “The chemistry aspect of it is part of everything that I do.”
As the crop of former Project SEED participants continues to grow, more and more are in a position to give back to the program. Tessier served for a number of years as a Project SEED coordinator and a member of the Project SEED committee. And McKithen has given nearly $10,000 to Project SEED and the ACS Scholars program.
“Once you get a chance to meet some Project SEED students, talk to them, follow them for a few years, and witness the impact this program has on their lives, it’s easy to give money,” McKithen says. “Project SEED improves the lives of others, so once you recognize that, you look forward to giving money.”
Not only does McKithen contribute regularly to Project SEED, he stays active in ACS and has been a member for more than 10 years. After graduating from high school, McKithen earned a bachelor’s in chemistry from Rider University and a master’s in chemistry from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He received his law degree from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in New York City.
This year, McKithen is chair-elect of the ACS Division of Chemistry & the Law, a member of the ACS Committee of Patents & Related Matters, and a member of the Professor Slayton A. Evans Jr. Fellowship Committee. “Every step of my educational and professional development since Project SEED, ACS has served and continues to serve as an indispensable information resource for me to figure out where I should go and what I should do next,” he says.
For many former Project SEED participants, that direction came at a critical point in their lives. When asked, all of the former Project SEED participants admitted that they would have returned to their previous summer jobs if they hadn’t heard about Project SEED. Tessier would have gone back to her summer job as a chambermaid in a hotel; Olsen would have continued working as a busboy in a restaurant; Hunt would have stayed on the family farm hauling hay and cutting grass at nearby cemeteries; Maranan would have been selling cotton candy again at the amusement park; McKithen would have worked for his family’s janitorial business; and Blauch would have returned to his job at McDonald’s. “I would have spent that summer and probably my whole senior year of high school working at McDonald’s [if it weren’t for Project SEED],” says Blauch. “I hated working there.” Project SEED allowed Blauch and the other participants to discover opportunities they didn’t know existed for them.
Despite not knowing where many of the former Project SEED participants ended up, long-time mentors and coordinators say they have faith that the program is doing what it’s supposed to do. “You just have to believe that something good is going to come out of this,” says Elaine Yamaguchi, a long-time coordinator for the California Section’s Project SEED program and a staff scientist at Chevron Oronite, in Richmond, Calif. “If they have a better idea of how chemistry is a positive force in everyday life, then that’s worth it.”
- » Harvesting Project SEED
- C&EN catches up with past participants in ACS’s 40-year-old mentoring program
- » Project SEED From The Ground Up
- Mentoring program has its roots in the political and social turmoil of the 1960s
- » Committee On Project SEED
- Long-term goals include expanding the program and better tracking of former participants
- » 2007–08 Project SEED College Scholarships
- The ACS Committee on Project SEED has announced the winners of its 2007–08 college scholarships.
- » Photo Gallery: Past SEED Participants
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