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Nurturing Chemistry Undergrads

ACS Programs Help Sharpen Skills Of Students In Puerto Rico Aiming For A Career In Chemistry

by Susan J. Ainsworth
September 2, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 35

Across Puerto Rico, chemistry departments at both public and private universities are always looking for ways to bolster their rigorous curricula, which boast “committed faculty members, a motivating teaching-learning environment, and a strong undergraduate research tradition,” says Ingrid Montes, a professor of chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.

Toward that end, the universities leverage valuable student-oriented programs provided by the American Chemical Society, which help undergraduates “develop the critical skills needed to become well-rounded professionals,” adds Montes, who is a member of the board of directors of ACS, which publishes C&EN.

The ACS Undergraduate Programs Office provides resources and opportunities that introduce students to the profession of chemistry, to their responsibilities as chemists, and to the benefits of professional association with ACS, according to Mary Kirchhoff, director of the ACS Education Division. ACS undergraduate programs “are designed to encourage communication between students and the community of chemists, as well as among students in ACS student chapters.”

Both public and private universities across Puerto Rico have established ACS student chapters, many of which are very active, Montes notes. She is the longtime faculty adviser for her campus’s ACS student chapter, which the Society Committee on Education has recognized with an Outstanding Chapter Award every year since 1993.

Student chapters hold meetings, invite speakers to present scientific lectures, organize field trips, raise funds for their programs, and participate in community service projects. The chapters’ members are enthusiastic ambassadors for chemistry, visiting schools, doing demonstrations, and sponsoring or advising high school chemistry clubs, Montes points out.

In addition, twice each year, ACS student chapters from across Puerto Rico join to put on the Festival de Química, a one-day public outreach event held at Paseo de la Princesa, a popular tourist area in San Juan. The festival provides information and presents hands-on demonstrations related to National Chemistry Week to educate the island’s schoolchildren, their parents, and others in the community about the importance and relevance of chemistry in everyday life, Montes says.

Since its inception eight years ago, the festival has grown to include 60 to 70 volunteers and nearly 1,000 attendees per event, according to Kelen S. Fureigh, a senior associate in the ACS Office of International Activities. Building on the festival’s success, Montes and other ACS volunteers have helped transplant the concept to countries in Latin America, including Colombia and Mexico. The Office of International Activities is working to expand this event to Chile this year and to Peru in 2014, Fureigh says.

Being involved in ACS student chapter activities has brought many benefits to students in Puerto Rico, Montes points out. Students develop skills not only in chemistry but also in leadership, teamwork, organization, and communication, she says.

Through their chapter, students also raise funds to travel to and participate in ACS national meetings, says Angela M. González, chair of the department of biology, chemistry, and environmental science and faculty adviser of the ACS student chapter at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, San Germán. Being involved in those meetings is “a great self-esteem booster for students” and allows them the opportunity “to behave as professionals” as they present posters or papers, she says.

Participating in ACS national meetings also helps students begin to develop a network—something that is critical to finding a job today, Montes says.

Before graduating with a B.S. in chemistry from UPR Mayagüez in June of this year, Legna Figueroa-Cosme says she reaped many benefits from ACS undergraduate programs. She presented posters at ACS meetings and was accepted into the ACS Scholars Program, which “supported my entire undergrad education,” she says. The program awards renewable scholarships of up to $5,000 per year to underrepresented minority students who want to enter chemistry or chemical engineering or related fields.

Through involvement with ACS, “I was able to meet and learn from scientists with different research backgrounds and interests,” Figueroa-Cosme says.

She adds that she “gained a better understanding of what chemistry looks like” and how it affects so many fields, which led her “to decide to pursue a lifelong career as a scientist.” Figueroa-Cosme is now working toward a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Georgia Institute of Technology. Eager to dive into her first year of graduate school, she says, “I’m ready to have fun!”


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