At The University of Texas of the Permian Basin, the chemistry department uses research as a tool for problem-based learning that complements course work, and vice versa.
“This is a key part of our mission,” said Milka Montes, department chair. “Many of our students come in leery of research as something that is ‘required’ or potentially scary, but the experience totally changes their perspective and opens the door to new interests.”
Students are required to take a minimum of two course credits in research, but most elect to do more once they have the initial experience. Students can either continue with the same faculty member or gain exposure to another research area. The university offers biochemistry, environmental and pre-pharmacy tracks with its Bachelor of Science in Chemistry as well as a chemical engineering degree.
Significant faculty attrition followed by the pandemic were tough on the department, Dr. Montes said. With classes back in person and four tenure-track faculty and two lecturers now on board, 19 undergraduates participated in research projects in 2021. The department averages approximately 50 chemistry majors.
“Students learn experimental design, conduct hands-on research and gain computation research experience,” Dr. Montes said. UT Permian Basin benefits from access to mega computers through the UT System.
In 2021, projects ranged from exploring nanoparticles’ impact on bacterial biofilms to conducting various types of chemical synthesis, including producing inhibitors to treat gout. Others developed biomimetic catalysts to create energy-rich molecules or spectroscopically determined the structure and function of organometallic compounds with quantum mechanical computational methods. Three students worked with a faculty member who aims to synthesize molecules to release carbon oxide (CO) at a controllable rate for therapeutic use. A number of the projects resulted in published papers.
Over the years, Welch support has helped literally hundreds of students, many of whom have gone on to graduate school or to work in the local petrochemical industry.
“Welch funding provides monetary support to students conducting research,” Dr. Montes said. “It also helps with travel to research conferences, equipment and supplies. It makes such a difference in the experience we can offer students – and something our faculty find invaluable in supporting their research and making other grant dollars go further.”