Department of Chemistry

Undergraduate Research in Chemistry

When should I begin research?

Chemistry majors seeking the B.S. degree are required to satisfy the undergraduate research requirement listed in their catalog. B.A. chemistry majors frequently find it to their benefit to do some research as well. Although this requirement is listed in the degree plan in the senior year, the research is frequently begun earlier. The typical student normally begins undergraduate research during the junior year. This starting date allows the student to distribute the required credits over several semesters and usually ensures that the student will have had the minimal laboratory courses (i.e. general chemistry and organic chemistry) indicated by most professors as necessary to begin research in their group. There is certainly nothing wrong with delaying your research experience until the senior year provided you have planned your program to allocate enough time for the required work. In fact, some faculty prefer that students delay their research until the senior year. They feel that devoting a larger percentage of time to research during one year is more likely to lead to greater productivity and satisfaction with the experience. You should assess your own schedule in deciding when to begin research.

How much time is required?

How much time should I set aside for research each week? During a regular academic semester you will be required to work in the laboratory a minimum of 3 clock hours per week per credit hour of chemistry 491 for which you are registered. In other words, you must put in at least 45 hours per credit hour during the course of a 15 week semester. The exact amount of time depends on the individual research advisor but should not fall outside the limits of 3-5 hours per week per credit hour. Since summer terms are only 5 or 10 weeks in length you must work either 9 or 4.5 hours per week per credit hour, respectively, to accumulate the minimum 45 hours of work. Only under unusual circumstances will you be allowed to register for more than 3 credit hours of chemistry 491 during an academic year in which you are carrying a normal course load. Three credit hours of registration for chemistry 491 during each 5-week summer term or six credit hours for the 10-week summer term will normally be considered the maximum enrollment. Students who are registered for additional courses during the summer will normally be limited to registration for fewer hours of chemistry 491.

How is this course graded?

Chemistry 491 is a required course for the B.S. degree and you will receive a letter grade of A, B, C, D or F for this course. Students should not assume that this course is an “automatic A” because it is not. Most students do receive A’s and B’s for their research grades but failure to follow directions, attend meetings, turn in reports or otherwise satisfactorily meet the implied requirements of this variable credit course can certainly result in a lower grade. The total credit hours of Chemistry 491 and 485 (more about chemistry 485 later) taken by B.S. chemistry majors on a graded (A-F) basis may not exceed 15. Additional hours of these courses may be taken on a satisfactory unsatisfactory (i.e. S/U) basis provided the student meets University guidelines for taking courses on an S/U basis. A maximum of 15 credit hours of Chemistry 485 and 491 may be included on the degree plan. B.A. students may take a maximum of 9 credit hours of these courses on a graded (A-F) basis and may include a maximum of 6 credits on the degree plan.

There is no guarantee that any financial assistance for such research is available. More often than not undergraduate students registered for Chemistry 491 will not receive any financial remuneration for “doing research.” In fact, since the research is a degree requirement students should not receive pay for completing the hours of Chemistry 491 required for their degree. However, some students may receive Robert A. Welch Foundation undergraduate research scholarships from various faculty members. Students receiving Welch scholarships are required to register for Chemistry 491 but there is no employee employer relationship implied. Financial remuneration for research credits above the required credits or for research done in the absence of chemistry 491 registration is acceptable. The details of such arrangements are left to the student and the advisor. You should not select a research advisor purely for financial reasons unless such assistance is a financial necessity. In such cases, you should inform the research advisor at an early stage in the selection process of this need.

How do I select a research advisor?

You should begin the selection of an advisor well in advance (i.e. at least 1- 2 months) of the time you plan to begin research. This will allow time for you to set up appointments and arrange discussions with several potential advisors. A list of all of the chemistry faculty involved in research can be obtained in the Research Active Faculty section of the Department of Chemistry's web site on the World Wide Web. Details about each faculty member, their area of current research, and relevant publications is available here.

It will be your responsibility to initiate contact with the faculty member and arrange for a discussion regarding a research position. You should take along a brief resume listing your chemistry, biochemistry, math, physics, computer science and other relevant courses and grades. You should probably talk with several different professors in a variety of research areas before making a final decision. Remember that a given professor at a given time may not be able to accept you into the group because of space, time, financial, or other limitations. Remember also that the exact requirements of a particular arrangement should be discussed. For instance, some of the questions you should ask are: What hours should I work? Are written reports required? (Note that the faculty have agreed that all students registered for Chemistry 491 must submit a written summary of their research at the end of each semester in order to receive credit for the course.) Will I be required to attend weekly research group meetings? Will I be given a project of my own or will I work with a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow? What is the project? Do you have other undergraduates working in the group? Lastly, make sure you will be doing research and not acting as a "gofer" or dish washer.

You are under no obligation to complete all of your undergraduate research requirement in one group. Many students find an association of several semesters in one group gives them a lot of experience in a particular area while others find that a variety of research experiences in different groups best suits their needs. Should you decide to change groups, you owe it to the advisor to explain why you are changing groups and to make sure you leave behind a final progress report and other materials the advisor may require (e.g. research notebooks).

What are the benefits of research?

The experience is very valuable for both B.S. and B.A. majors and may help you decide on your career objectives. You will learn valuable new skills and develop relationships with graduate students, postdoctorals and your faculty advisor. You will learn to work as part of a research team and begin to more fully understand the importance of fundamental research. The research advisor also becomes a valuable source of letters of recommendation. Many undergraduate students may be surprised to learn that they may be listed as co-authors on scientific publications that result from research in which they participated.

Can chemistry 491 count as an advanced chemistry elective?

Chemistry 491 credits may not ever substitute for the advanced chemistry electives required for either the B.S. or B.A. degrees in chemistry. The B.A. chemistry major may take Chemistry 491 or 485 as general elective courses, however. Chemistry 485 is similar to chemistry 491 but is really a problems course requiring a rather well defined, limited problem. The problem usually involves little actual laboratory work but may involve considerable library work and independent study. Please check with the undergraduate advisor before enrolling in this course. Faculty members who agree to provide Chemistry 485 problems for students must so inform the undergraduate advisor as well.

How do I register for research?

Students who register for Chemistry 491 or 485 must obtain approval from the faculty research advisor and undergraduate advisor in chemistry prior to registration. Students must submit the signed approval form in room 104 CHEM. An override will be entered so the student can register for the appropriate section of CHEM491 and select the approved number of credit hours, normally from 0-3 during a long semester, and up to 6 for the 10 week summer term. The approval form must be submitted each semester. These guidelines also apply to majors in other departments doing research with a chemistry faculty member. Every student engaged in undergraduate research should enroll in CHEM491; students getting paid or wishing to volunteer may register for zero hours.

Can I do undergraduate research with someone outside the chemistry department?

Clearly, there is “chemistry” research going on in departments other than the Chemistry Department and students sometimes request permission to work with a faculty member in another department. This is possible provided the student discusses this with the Chemistry Undergraduate Advisor who will then authorize the student to obtain a written 1-page description of the proposed research with the faculty member’s signature and phone number. If the Undergraduate Advisor approves of the project, he will then contact the faculty member in the outside department to see what arrangements can be made to assure that the student receives credit for the course. This may necessitate an agreement whereby the student is formally registered for a Chemistry 491 section under the Undergraduate Advisor’s name if the outside department does not have an undergraduate research course. The faculty member in the outside department would have to agree to this arrangement, agree to abide by Chemistry Department guidelines and agree to provide the grade as required. These arrangements will be handled on a case-by-case basis but they have proven successful in the past.

Syllabus CHEM 491 Undergraduate Research

Course Description

Undergraduate research is conducted under the supervision of a faculty advisor or mentor but the student may work directly with other scientists, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students in the research group. The student’s research project is typically based on the faculty mentor’s research interests, which allows the student to draw upon the mentor’s expertise and resources and also allows the faculty mentor to develop a productive research program. The mentor should meet regularly with the student to make research plans, assess risks associated with the proposed research, and review results. The student is encouraged to take primary responsibility for the project and to make substantial input into its direction. The mentor should assist the student in building confidence, should offer encouragement when necessary, and provide guidance and assistance for the student’s future education and career development. While the nature of the research depends on the specifics of the project, an ideal undergraduate research project:

  • has a clearly-communicated purpose and potential outcomes
  • has well-defined objectives and methods
  • is substantial in scope (as opposed to a collection of small projects)
  • has reasonable chance of completion in available time
  • requires contact with the chemical literature
  • avoids repetitive work
  • requires use of advanced concepts
  • requires a variety of techniques and instruments (not exclusively library work)
  • results in a publication

Course Expectations

The student interested in this course should first select a research advisor and obtain formal approval by the research advisor before registering for the course. The student is expected to work a minimum of 3 hours per week to receive 1 credit. For example, if registered for 6 hours, the student should spend about 20 hours/week doing research. The details of the work schedule should be established with the research advisor. The student is expected to keep a complete and factual record of the research performed in a laboratory notebook. At the end of the semester, the student is required to produce a report which should adopt the format of an ACS article (Introduction, Results, Discussion, Conclusion, Experimental). A template can be found on the JACS web site in the “TEMPLATES FOR ARTICLES” category. This report should be graded by the research advisor and a copy should be given to the Undergraduate Advisor for placement in the student's file. In addition, the student will be expected to give a presentation of his/her results to the research group. The student should also be encouraged to give an oral or a poster presentation at a regional or a national meeting (ACS, regional undergraduate symposia etc..). The advisor will decide the final grade.

All students are expected to received both general and work place safety training no later than the first 10 days of the semester for which they are registered for CHEM491. Students will need to submit the Work Area Specific Training form verifying this training to the Undergraduate Advising Office. Failure to do so may result in the student being dropped from the course without notice.

Course Rationale and Expected Outcome

This course will provide the student with real life training in fundamental chemical research. The experience acquired in this course should help the student decide if he/she wants to pursue graduate studies in chemistry. The experience will increase the student’s understanding of the scientific method, help the student understand more about how previous researchers discovered the information in the textbooks, and teach the student to read and evaluate scientific journal articles. Participation in this course may result in research publication(s) which should strengthen the student’s resume. Undergraduate research also provides the student with an opportunity to work closely with a professor who may act as a future reference.

Through undergraduate research, students develop problem-solving skills in a fashion that no other educational experience can match. The research experience requires that students reach beyond their classroom textbooks and use the chemical literature to learn about their research topic. Students learn to design their own experiments and make observations where the outcome is not already known. Their formal education gains added relevance when they apply classroom knowledge and laboratory skills in a research setting. Extensive hands-on use of research-quality equipment further develops their experimental skills and techniques. Students learn how to interpret results and draw conclusions from their own experiments. Finally, both oral and written presentations of research results complete the cycle of science. Their contribution to the scientific knowledge base permits other scientists to build upon their efforts.

In addition to learning useful scientific skills, students involved in research develop personal traits that are critical for success in their future profession, be it in science or elsewhere. Research encourages students to develop a spirit of open inquiry and stimulates their personal creativity. Research students gain confidence in working independently and in making sound judgments while working in an environment where they learn to ask for guidance when appropriate. The necessity of developing new approaches to failed experiments develops persistence and a strong work ethic, and the necessity of repeating successful experiments before publication helps students to recognize the importance of producing work of the highest standard.

Because research is often conducted in a team setting, students learn to interact with their peers in conducting experiments, analyzing results and designing additional experiments. They also learn to work with their mentors and interact with other faculty in a professional manner. By doing original science and working with established scientists, research students learn what it means to be a scientist. Furthermore, students become more employable by being involved in research. Potential employers greatly value the skills that are developed through research and actively seek students with research experience.

Each semester, a student will be evaluated according to the Undergraduate Research Rubric. The faculty advisor will assess the students' development in knowledge, skills, critical thinking, independence, team work, safety, ethics, and communication skills. The rubric should be use as a basis for discussion and benchmark for improvement.