Sophomore Andrea Westlie and senior Daniel Kremer, both St. Thomas chemistry students, sat just feet away as Nobel Prize-winning chemist Robert Grubbs spoke.
“Here’s this amazing chemist I’ve read about in my textbooks, and he’s just casually sitting there talking to us,” Westlie said. “It was awesome.”
That moment was one of many highlights for the 17 undergraduate chemistry students St. Thomas sent to Denver in March for the 249th American Chemical Society meeting. St. Thomas students spent other significant moments perusing the hundreds of presentations in all kinds of chemistry and, most importantly, presented their own work. As undergraduates, they were the minority among a field of faculty, graduate and post-doctorate presenters, highlighting a level of undergraduate research productivity department chair Tony Borgerding calls “unmatched.”
It’s no surprise the Tommies found themselves in rare air when you consider the culture of undergraduate research they come from in St. Paul: For years the Chemistry Department has provided a buffet of opportunities outside the classroom for its students, with more than 50 conducting full-time, paid research each of the past eight summers.
“We recognize the best way to get students excited about science and have them learn as much as possible is to get them involved in research,” Borgerding said. “I compare us to any other institution in Minnesota for sure, and the percentage of students who are involved is way higher.”
Beyond the simple volume of opportunities students take advantage of, St. Thomas has become known for its community and culture built around research. Students gravitate toward the chemistry fourth floor in Owens Science Hall outside of classroom hours, displaying levels of comfort with professors and peers only possible through working together over many hours, days, weeks and months.
“It’s something that’s really unique to our university,” Kremer said. “The fourth-floor culture and community is a real thing.”
St. Thomas’ culture of research has been many years in the making. Borgerding said the department operates on the belief students get more out of their overall experience when they’re exposed to the research process early and often, and professors offer that to as many students as they can.
“They are guaranteed an opportunity here. There are opportunities at other places; here they’re guaranteed one, and guaranteed it early,” Borgerding said. “If they show an interest at all, we’re going to grab onto them. The subjects and topics we look at are so broad, there is going to be something everyone is interested in.”
That broadness comes from research slots where students work alongside professors. Research is funded throughout the school year by the department, grants and awards from St. Thomas, and external companies. Students work individually or in groups with peers, supporting larger projects with individual, professor-mentored research. Both Kremer and Westlie said the appeal to having so many options is huge; when asked to name some of the more interesting projects going on at any one time, Borgerding answered, “How much time do ya got?”
“You learn what you like and don’t like, which is really helpful,” Westlie said. “Starting out it was, ‘Med school is the only thing for me.’ But then you start taking these classes and doing research and realize, not so much. I have other interests.”
Research takes place year-round and full time in the summer, which means – while it’s not a requirement – it’s rare for a chemistry major to graduate without directly taking part in research. Westlie has zeroed in on researching “synthesis of secondary amines and testing their kinetic properties when it’s reacting with a binding chemical,” while Kremer is “studying the effect of something called an NHC, which is a type of molecule you combine with a metal that has a special effect.” Kremer is leveraging his research experience to further his studies next year at University of Michigan, while Westlie will return for two more years on the fourth floor.
“I look at what I’ve learned in almost two years and it’s insane,” Westlie said. “It all comes from having this community of people that wants to help you and get you to keep learning. It’s super fun.”
“You’re also more likely to be successful when you have a community that’s supporting you, and that’s another part of research I see as so important,” Borgerding added. “There can be this wall or barrier, the grade, which impacts my discussions with students and their discussions with me in the classroom. There is no such limitation or barrier or wall when we’re doing research. With my students directly, and with students who are researching with someone else, the doors are open, people are working side by side.
“That’s an environment for success,” he said.