UB chemists awarded $340,000 to bring undergrads to Buffalo for summer research, career development

Six scientists standing in lab coats in a laboratory in front of a large instrument.

Shermain Aponte (fourth from left), a University of Puerto Rico at Cayey student, is a participant in UB’s CHEM 360° summer research program. UB chemists supporting her include (from left to right, excluding Aponte): professor Diana Aga, Aponte’s faculty research mentor; faculty members Timothy Cook and Jason Benedict, the program’s organizers; professor Luis Colón, who helped recruit Aponte to the program; and PhD student Grace Guardian, a research mentor. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Lab work, ethics and social media are all on the agenda, with the goal of helping students become well-rounded scientists

Release Date: July 23, 2019

“To be a successful scientist, you have to think beyond the laboratory.”
Jason Benedict, associate professor of chemistry
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Being a scientist means more than just working in a lab.

That’s why a new summer research program in the University at Buffalo Department of Chemistry is also covering topics like ethics, interviewing, public speaking and establishing a professional presence on social media.

The 10-week program is called “CHEM 360°: A Comprehensive Research and Career Development Experience @UBChemistry.”

It’s funded by a $340,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and will take place each year through 2021 as part of the NSF’s well-known Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) initiative.

“The unique spin of our REU is to integrate career development into what students are learning,” says Jason Benedict, PhD, associate professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “To be a successful scientist, you have to think beyond the laboratory. You have to understand ethics. You have to be able to communicate science effectively. Your online presence matters a lot — how do you present yourself in a professional way?”

Chemistry faculty members Jason Benedict and Timothy Cook wearing white coats in a laboratory.

From left: Chemistry faculty members Jason Benedict and Timothy Cook are leading their department’s new Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Benedict is leading the REU with Timothy Cook, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry, with support from many colleagues who are hosting student researchers in their labs. UB Career Services is also a partner.

The program is open to undergraduates who do not attend UB. The first participants — who began their experience this June — include five students from Western New York colleges and universities, and six from the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey (UPR Cayey).

Becoming a well-rounded scientist

Participants in CHEM 360° conduct research in UB chemistry labs, tour local companies, and attend career development seminars and workshops.

“It’s been a great experience,” says Shermain Aponte, a junior at UPR Cayey who is in the REU. “I’ve learned about what it looks like to be in a PhD program, and about how you can get the word out about your work when you’re a scientist. Scientists are always learning new information, and you want to share that with people because you want them to be aware of what is happening in the world.”

Shermain Aponte and Grace Guardian working in the lab, wearing goggles, gloves and white coats.

Shermain Aponte (left), a participant in UB’s CHEM 360° summer research program, prepares a sample for analysis in a mass spectrometer. With UB chemistry PhD student Grace Guardian (right), Aponte is part of a team that’s optimizing analytical methods for detecting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in deer tissues. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Aponte is doing research with UB PhD student Grace Guardian in the lab of Diana Aga, PhD, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry at UB. The team is optimizing analytical methods for detecting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) ​in deer tissues.

PFAS are highly stable, manmade chemicals that are widely used in industrial and consumer applications. The compounds are important components of aqueous film-forming foams used in firefighting, and are also found in textiles, food packaging materials and nonstick coatings. PFAS find their way into the environment as pollutants, and in part because they are so hard to break down, they can accumulate in the bodies of animals.

“It’s exciting to do research, and I really like thinking about how you can apply what you do in the lab to what’s happening out in the world,” said Aponte, a biology major at UPR Cayey.

Creating a pipeline for future UB chemists

Four scientists standing in lab coats in a laboratory in front of a large instrument.

Shermain Aponte (second from left), a University of Puerto Rico at Cayey student, is a participant in UB’s CHEM 360° summer research program. UB chemistry professor Luis Colón (far left) helped recruit Aponte, who is doing research with UB PhD student Grace Guardian (third from left) in the lab of UB chemistry professor Diana Aga (far right). Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

CHEM 360° creates new opportunities for Western New York undergraduates and strengthens the Department of Chemistry’s longstanding relationship with partners in Puerto Rico.

Dozens of undergraduates from Puerto Rico have studied and conducted research in UB’s chemistry department over the years thanks to connections created and nurtured by UB faculty member Luis Colón, PhD, A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Chemistry and a native of Puerto Rico. Some of these students have gone on to enroll in UB’s graduate programs in chemistry, with several earning UB PhDs.

Colón has also been engaged in recruiting students into CHEM 360°.

Looking ahead, Benedict and Cook are hopeful that some REU participants from Puerto Rico and elsewhere will return to UB to pursue an advanced degree. It’s happened before: The department had a past REU led by faculty that included professors Janet Morrow, PhD, and Sherry Chemler, PhD, and several participants in that program also chose UB for graduate school.

“We’ve got a great group of students this year, and if they have a good experience here, they might opt to come here to UB to pursue their master’s or PhD,” Cook says. “They’ll already be familiar with this institution and who we are, and they’ll be excited to come back.”

Grace Guardian and Shermain Aponte in the lab, working with a mass spectrometer and wearing protective equipment including goggles and gloves.

UB chemistry PhD student Grace Guardian (left) loads a sample into a mass spectrometer as Shermain Aponte (right) looks on. Aponte, a University of Puerto Rico at Cayey student, is taking part in UB’s CHEM 360° summer research program. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

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