The 2021-2022 academic year was the first for a Welch Foundation departmental grant to support undergraduate research at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall. The school typically has about 40 science majors and four or five pursuing a chemistry degree.
As ETBU is primarily a teaching university with substantial faculty class loads and little research funding, opportunities for hands-on lab experience had been limited at the school. But realizing the benefits of research for students, and energized by a generous grant from a former faculty member which paid for new instrumentation, ETBU applied for a Foundation grant and recruited four students into the program for the fall 2021 semester. Two continued their projects in the spring.
“Welch funding has been a really good motivator to get individuals involved in research,” Don Spencer, program administrator and chemistry professor, explained.
Faculty turnover of two of the three chemistry faculty posed another challenge. After recruiting new team members, including Daniel Bryant and Daniel Korir, the fall 2022 semester saw two students again involved in research.
“Ordinary lab curriculum is ‘canned,’ with expected outcomes,” Dr. Spencer said. “Research removes those certainties and brings the excitement of discovery – the joy and value of science. It also fosters independent thinking and provides an experience that is more reflective of what science is actually all about.”
Dr. Bryant, a synthetic chemist in his first year at ETBU, says it has been both challenging and rewarding to develop research projects that match student interests and that can be done without access to NMR instrumentation, a vital tool in his area.
“Most of our students have an interest in healthcare, so we have created a program to identify toxins in regional wastewater,” he said. “After determining what toxins to study and setting standard operating procedures, we will begin running samples to identify the prevalence of a type of phthalate widely used in cosmetics and other products.”
A second project, overseen by Dr. Korir, is focused on designing lipid nanoparticles using mushroom extract for biomedical applications, including treating fibrosis and lung injuries. The student designs, formulates and characterizes the nanoparticles with the goal of optimizing size, surface charge, stability, encapsulation efficiency and delivery.
Before the start of the academic year, students in the research program attend a week-long workshop to introduce the idea of independent scientific research, ground them in instrumentation and literature research, and determine a research direction for their projects.
“Our goal is to set the student up for success,” said Dr. Spencer. “With some experience under our belt, we have the framework to bring the research experience to more of our students – it has proven a great tool for both them and our faculty.”