Charles A. Smith

Departmental Grant, Our Lady of the Lake Univ.

Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU), a private, Catholic institution founded in 1895, serves a majority Hispanic and primarily female student body at its San Antonio campus, with many first-generation college students.

“Most of our science majors originally plan to become doctors – many don’t even know there are other career paths in science,” said Charles Smith, professor and chemistry chair “The research experience is eye-opening.”

Since its first grant in 2004, Welch Foundation departmental grant funding has supported some 60 undergraduates in OLLU’s chemistry and chemical biology degree programs.

“Many of our students need to work to help pay for college,” he explained, “and Welch funding lets us provide a stipend so they can spend the summer with us doing research on campus.”

OLLU also uses Welch funding to help with equipment maintenance, chemicals, other supply purchases, and travel to conferences so students can experience what a career in research means.

Years ago, Dr. Smith recounts, a former graduate gifted the campus with equipment for an analytical lab. But keeping that equipment running – and the supplies needed for research – is expensive.

“A small tank of ultrapure hydrogen, for example, is $800,” he noted. Last year, the Welch grant also helped the school purchase a potentiostat.

OLLU requires all chemistry majors to complete a research capstone class, with the majority opting for the summer program when the time commitment is easier to balance with other academics.

Each student works with a faculty member on their own project – from beginning to end – and then presents it at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting. They start with a literature review to hone in on a project and then design the experiments.

“It involves a lot of problem solving at each step of the process,” Dr. Smith said.

For example, he points to one of his students who decided to analyze dirt samples from a nearby cement plant for mercury levels last year.

To design the appropriate tests, the student worked with soil purchased from a Superfund site that had already been extensively analyzed. The goal was to develop tests that could duplicate those results. Once the protocols were in place, the student began taking samples along the plant’s fenceline to test.

“This goes such a long way in building their confidence,” Dr. Smith said. “And presenting at conferences, if nerve-racking, also exposes them to graduate school recruiters. They don’t have to go to grad school, of course, but it is amazing when they realize they can.”