In late August, Illinois Institute of Technology’s chemistry department announced that it was launching not one but five specialized undergraduate chemistry programs. The five new programs are in bioanalytical chemistry, environmental chemistry, forensic chemistry, medicinal chemistry, and computational chemistry and biochemistry. All five new majors are available to first-year undergraduates starting this year and to transfer students starting in 2019.
“We want to educate our majors in more specialized and interdisciplinary areas related to chemistry so that we can meet societal needs and better prepare our students for professional careers,” says Hyun-Soon (Joy) Chong, the chemistry professor who spearheaded the development of the new programs.
Students who choose any of the five new programs will take the same curriculum required of all Illinois Tech chemistry majors. That curriculum calls for 18 elective credits, including six in chemistry and 12 free electives. The elective courses will be what distinguish the new majors from the general chemistry major.
▸ Bioanalytical chemistry
▸ Environmental chemistry
▸ Forensic chemistry
▸ Medicinal chemistry
▸ Computational chemistry and biochemistry.
“They’re not losing the chemistry background,” Chong says. “They have extra weapons to develop their career. This is a real win-win situation.”
The department designed the new programs to overlap in terms of curricula. “Our teaching capacity is limited, so we identified core areas for the new programs that we can manage well,” Chong says. “These new programs are linked together. They all need analytical chemistry background, data analysis, and spectroscopic and instrumental analysis.”
In addition to new courses that the department is creating for the majors, students can also choose existing courses in other departments. For example, in the computational chemistry major, students can choose to take data science classes from the computer science or the information technology and management department.
The programs in forensic and environmental chemistry echo existing programs at other institutions. In contrast, the bioanalytical and computational programs might be the first of their kind for undergraduates in the U.S.
Christopher J. Cramer, a computational chemist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, says the proposed curriculum looks “quite sensible.” He says that U of M, like other schools, has seen an increase in the number of undergraduates taking computer science and data science courses to supplement majors in other areas.
But he questions how large the market is for such training in the chemical enterprise. “Computational chemistry groups are key in several industries, including especially pharma, but the size of those groups is not huge and they’re mostly Ph.D.s,” Cramer says. “ ‘Big data’ skills haven’t really gotten as much play in chemistry as in some other fields yet because there aren’t really that many ‘big databases,’ as it were.”
Cramer anticipates that student interest in the computational major will be strong because of students’ desire to add computer and data science to their transcripts. “This does so in a planned-out way,” he says.
The new forensic chemistry program, in contrast, is not the first such program. The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), part of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, accredits about 25 undergraduate degree programs in the U.S. and Canada. At this point, Illinois Tech isn’t planning to seek accreditation.
Lack of that accreditation might not hurt the program, says Li Niu, head of the chemistry department at the University at Albany. For more than a decade, the department there has had a highly regarded forensic chemistry program. The department had FEPAC accreditation for five years but chose not to renew it. Without FEPAC accreditation, a forensic chemistry program can be designed with more flexibility, Niu says.
Niu attributes the success of UAlbany’s program partly to the department’s strong graduate program in forensics. Five out of 23 faculty members in the department focus on forensic chemistry in their own research. “This kind of graduate program provides a very strong foundation,” Niu says. “The undergraduate students can see what they learn in forensic chemistry lectures can be applied to real-world problems.”
Niu believes that there’s not just one recipe for success in forensic programs. Each program takes a slightly different path as it grows. But he does believe that a strong program in analytical chemistry education and research is essential. “Without a strong background in analytical chemistry, there would be no forensics,” he says.
And Illinois Tech’s program aims to provide that analytical foundation. “Our forensic chemistry program is created to provide undergraduates with a strong background in core chemistry areas, as well as analytical, biological, and instrumental techniques for forensic applications,” Chong says. “The goal is to have students exposed to different areas of forensic science and line up possible tracks for them to select.” For instance, students interested in forensic DNA analysis can take more biology-oriented courses, whereas students interested in forensic data analysis can take more informatics courses.
Now that it has announced the new programs, what Illinois Tech needs are students. The department, which is working on a strategy for communicating the new programs to high school students and teachers, hopes the programs will help recruit new students to the department. Currently, it has a total of about 30 chemistry majors, graduating about six majors per year. “Hopefully, we can at least double our enrollment,” Chong says.
The department is heartened by its current students’ response. “Our current students are sad because they see cool new programs, but they have to leave,” Chong says.