Their projects range from synthesizing new antibiotics and pharmaceutical intermediates to making new adhesive polymers and new materials for use in organic light-emitting diodes. "We deal primarily with the synthesis of new organic molecules and have synthesized an extremely wide range of compounds," explained Dr. Tom Ippoliti, as he supervised a dozen students who worked on various research projects last summer.
The researchers and Ippoliti work in the Owens Science Hall; it and O’Shaughnessy Science Hall make up the $37 million Frey Science and Engineering Center. Completed in fall 1997, the 210,000-square-foot center was a major priority of the Ever Press Forward Campaign. The center honors four science gifts from: the Eugene and Mary Frey family (Eugene and Mary Frey are co-chairs of the university’s campaign), the O’Shaughnessy Family Foundation, Dr.Ben Owens of Hibbing and 3M.
Faculty helped design teaching and research space to make innovative teaching easier. That is apparent watching Ippoliti lead his students in research for existing companies, such as synthesizing photochromic molecules that turn color in the sun and can be used in photo gray lenses. "We find projects from companies all over the country that pay us for conducting research. So the students are paid for making something useful like pharmaceutical intermediates and learning a great deal in the process." Ippoliti has for years conducted research for local companies like Medtronic, H.B. Fuller and Vision Ease, bringing in between $115,000 to $187,000 a year to pay students and provide equipment.
"I utilize undergraduate research as a teaching tool," he explained. "Chemistry is a hands-on science. You learn about reactions in a classroom, but in a lab you make a reaction work. Students get the practical application of a lecture and find out in labs that things are not as simple as they appear. They learn to deal with failure, too, and figure out what needs to be done to succeed. Problem solving is a big part of research."
Ippoliti can have many undergraduates doing research because of the large amount of space allocated to research labs. Ippoliti, who has taught at St. Thomas for 12 years, also funded and supervised student research in the old science facilities in Albertus Magnus Hall (now John R. Roach Center fo the Liberal Arts), but research space was limited, as was classroom space. "Improved facilities have led to a tremendous increase in the number of science students. We had one class of 40 for organic chemistry in Magnus; now we have three organic classes of more than 40," he said.
"The St. Thomas science labs were in dire need of modernization when I arrived in 1989," said Ippoliti, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Undergraduate research in the sciences requires access to safe, reliable and modern facilities and instrumentation.
"Modernization of any science facility is an expensive proposition. Realizing that science and technology are crucial aspects of any educational institution and the foundation of the rapid advancement of our technologically advanced society, St. Thomas has invested heavily in this area. With the help of the capital campaign, St. Thomas has been able to meet that challenge.
"Now St. Thomas has become a leader in the utilization of undergraduate research as a teaching tool. We have laboratories and instrumentation that rival the leading research institutions in the country. After being educated in our state-of-the-art facilities, our students are able to move on to any research institution in academia or industry and be knowledgeable and comfortable within their laboratories. In summary, the capital campaign has provided St. Thomas with the resources to become an institution with an outstanding program in undergraduate science education."
Classrooms have built-in audio-visual equipment and Internet access, built-in gases and vacuum systems and more room for equipment storage. The 55 full-time and 25 part-time faculty have 23 research and 46 instructional labs near their offices — and near their students — to strengthen student interaction.
"The facility has really attracted students in both quantity and quality," Ippoliti said. St. Thomas had 531 math and science majors in 1994-95; today that number has grown to 869. Since every St. Thomas student must take three math, science or computer courses (one must be a natural science with a lab), the center’s halls are busy. More than 4,500 students take classes there each semester.
St. Thomas is considered a premier science facility. "Our students are valued highly," Ippoliti said. "Eli Lilly and Co. specifically recruited our chemistry graduates and has hired three in the past two years. That’s pretty good." He estimates that about half of chemistry graduates go into the health professions or on to graduate school. One 2000 graduate, Laurie Parker, received a three-year grant to complete a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. "It is unique for an undergraduate to have the level of facilities, freedom, experience and projects that St. Thomas offers. Professors and graduate students at Glasgow were surprised and impressed with the training I received at St. Thomas," Parker said.
Ippoliti usually starts his students on research the summer after their sophomore year. One researcher is Brooke Olson, ’03. "The teachers here are wonderful, especially ‘Doc.’ He wants to be sure we will know what to do when we leave here for the real world of chemistry," Olson said. She believes interaction with teachers is essential. "Most science teachers here encourage students to go into their offices to just talk or get help if they need it," Olson said.
Lab atmospheres often include boom boxes and lots of personal interaction. "St. Thomas gave our daughter a sense of family. She came away from her college experience so mature and sure of herself and is ready for the next step. We were delighted to see how much you and your students enjoy everything about chemistry," a mother wrote to Ippoliti after her daughter’s graduation.
Ippoliti laughed, admitting that he takes students to Davanni’s for pizza fairly often. "I enjoy getting to know the students, and I think they would tell you that sense of togetherness is important. I think that ultimately they learn more. Of course, sometimes I become like an overprotective parent when we go up to the cabin," says the father of two young daughters. "I make them use the buddy system when swimming off the pontoon and try to keep an eye on everyone."
Like other student researchers, Olson agreed "the facilities here are wonderful. This science center is one of the main reasons I came to St. Thomas," said Olson, a native of Onalaska, Wis., who plans to go to medical school and become a family practice physician. Part of her tuition is funded by a Dean’s Scholarship (for outstanding achievement in high school). Olson also has been a tutor for a freshman chemistry lab and plans to continue working as a researcher. "Since high school I have liked chemistry above everything else," she said. "You get to go into a lab and do things rather than just talk about them."
Justin Quade ’03, a biology major, is certain that "I couldn’t have come to St. Thomas without a Dean’s Scholarship, a district scholarship and state grants. I am very glad I could. The science facilities are awesome. I went to a lot of other schools when I was considering colleges and this is by far the most amazing and state-of-the art. And ‘Doc’ is very understanding when I make mistakes. He is very accessible and really helps the students. Overall, the teachers here are so good and so nice; they are impressive."
A native of Duluth, Quade also plans to go to medical school, possibly specializing in neurosurgery. "That’s why I also play on the football team. It’s good medical experience," he laughed.
Organic chemistry is like a puzzle, Quade said, and that is what makes it fun: "You try to make compounds and get different reactions. Things do not always work out as planned, but it is cool when you make a new compound after three months of work. It’s a rush of adrenalin."
Ippoliti agreed: "It’s fun to make something that has not been made before or create it in a new way. Thinking of different routes to make things, like a new compound, is exciting. It’s a nice privilege to come to work every day and do what you love."