REU Program Renewed

Research Experience for Undergraduates

It has long been recognized that the best way to promote graduate careers in the natural sciences is to expose students to a stimulating research program. This is just as true at UConn as it is elsewhere. In fact, a number of programs are in place to lead our own chemistry majors along this path. But what about students attending colleges that do not have the PhD-level research program our students enjoy? The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds a program, the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), to address this very need. It is the flagship program for undergraduate research in the US, funding travel, room and board, and a stipend for the participants. It also provides research funds as well as travel funds for the students to present their research at national meetings, such as American Chemical Society national meetings. Our department has had the good fortune to serve as an NSF-funded REU site in chemistry since 1997. Over several three-year funding cycles, Professors Howell, McGrath (who left the department in 1999), Brückner, Bohn, and Peczuh have served as directors and/or codirectors of the program. The program was most recently renewed for the years 2011 through 2013 with Brückner as Director, Peczuh as co-Director, and with our undergraduate coordinator, Osker Dahabsu, to keep it all organized. Together, with a generous contribution by the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences along with supplements to NSF research grants held by members of the department, this program has hosted >150 students (mostly at the rising junior and senior level) over the past 13 summers. We especially target women, minorities, and non-traditional students for our program.

The REU Program

The centerpiece of the program is an intense 10-week period where the REU student works on an active project under the guidance of one of our faculty members. Acceptance into the program is highly competitive (in some years we have had ~300 applications for 8 to 10 positions). In the application, students select a research group with which they would like to work. Once the candidates arrive on campus, they begin research. They also partake in a number of ancillary professional development offerings and social events. For example, seminars introduce the students to topics such as safe practices in the laboratories, how to present research results effectively (this well-loved seminar has been given by Professor Michel since the beginning of our program!), ethical issues in science, careers in chemistry, and a scientific writing exercise. The group gets the opportunity to socialize with each other, students in the department, and other campus REU programs at ice cream socials and BBQs (the season opener that has been traditionally held at Professor Howell’s house), and trips to baseball games or the beach. Another highlight of the program is a guided tour of a regional industrial research facility. Over the years, we have visited the research and development laboratories of Pfizer in Groton, CT; Boehringer-Ingelheim in Ridgefield, CT; and a United Technologies fuel cell center engineering and production line in South Windsor, CT.

Forging a Partnership with CCSU

In the past few years, we have also created a special link to Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). We place one or two CCSU students each year into our REU program, and we have also traveled as a group to CCSU for a hands-on, day-long workshop in single crystal diffractometry. Hosted by Professor Crundwell, an expert in diffractometry, this short course introduces an intellectually challenging technical component to the program that involves the entire cohort. It also provides the students a good visual and conceptual idea about this technique that is instrumental to all fields of chemistry. While UConn has a range of diffractometers for proteins or powdered samples, no equivalent instrument for small molecule diffractometry is currently available. This fact brings the idea home to the students that not everything is available at the larger institution, and that smaller schools may indeed be more than a reduced version of the big schools.

Beyond the REU Experience

The UConn REU programs culminate in oral presentations and a poster symposium for which the university community, parents, and faculty from the students’ home institutions are invited. By all measures, our program has been a resounding success. Of the many gifted students we have hosted, most have become chemistry graduate students, some even at UConn. Some have become doctors (the medical kind) and lawyers (the intellectual property kind). And the enthusiasm of the students for higher education has gone further, as several former participants have become professors at colleges and universities, nurturing their own students to become chemists. One even made it her profession to direct undergraduate researchers. We believe their positive experience at UConn made them ambassadors for our graduate program. As one additional measure of success, 45+ peer-reviewed publications and 40+ presentations at national conferences with REU participants as co-authors emerged. These successes, and more, are listed on our web site. With funding for the next three summers secured, we are looking forward to introducing another generation of young scientists to the thrills of research at UConn. For more information about the REU program, please visit: