She’s Never Wrong, She’s Dr. Wright!

Hey dins (and hopefully future dins)! Last week I interviewed Dr Wright from the Chemistry department (which also happens to be my major, whoop whoop) so here is what we talked about- enjoy!

What is your role in the chemistry department?

I have 2 roles in the Chemistry department. One role is to teach chemistry to students by teaching courses, and the other role is to be the coordinator for the department as the department chair. In the first role, I get to teach the CHM-110 general chemistry course for potential chemistry majors, and then I teach our inorganic course, and work with research and seminar students. As chair, I help coordinate the summer research programs, try to find funding for everybody, try to coordinate the instrumentation and keep it running, organize service contracts, and try to keep everybody working happily together.


How would you describe the ideal chemistry major? What are good chemistry majors like?

They come in lots of flavors. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all major, but I think what characterizes our majors in general is they are curious about how the world works, and they are intrigued by what happens in the laboratory whether they’re doing wet chemistry, mixing chemicals together, or sitting at a computer modeling how the universe might work. They are curious and resilient. They bounce back when their experiments don’t work, and they are able to smile occasionally when things don’t work, haha!


What is your favorite class offered by your department?

Techniques of chemistry. It is a wild and crazy class where the students are coming and going all day learning what it’s really like to be a scientist. From learning how to assemble glassware, to mixing chemicals, how to isolate products and characterize products they’ve made, learning how to use the instruments, getting their “driver’s license” on the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy), using the big instruments for the first time. It wears everybody out, but at the end students are ready to not be afraid to make a mistake in lab. It’s okay to not know the answer all the time, and that’s a major transition for every student, to get to the point where they understand that it’s okay to not know the answer.


What kinds of study abroad opportunities are available to students? Are there any specific chemistry programs?

Chemistry majors have gone on study abroad with just about every department there is on campus. They have traveled with all the language programs, with the biologist to the Galapagos, they’ve gone to Africa on safari, they’ve gone to China, Japan, England doing Shakespeare. If there’s a study away program offered by the university, I can guarantee you there’s been a chemistry major on that trip at some point in time. We try to ensure that the chemistry major is flexible enough so that students can take advantage of the openings. We’ve had students go to the art department’s semester in Cortona, Italy. As long as you let your advisor know that you’re interested in going to a study abroad program, we work with students to make sure that it’s possible for them to do that. And we have sent students off to work in labs in Australia at the Institute for Smart Polymers. Professor Hanks has organized a lot of those opportunities at the University of Wollongong in Australia. While it’s not a formal program, we have coordinated these opportunities.


What are some internships that Chemistry students have held recently?

We’ve had students participate in other research programs through NSF REU programs, we have also had pre-med student participate in internships where they shadowed physicians, doing research at St. Jude’s, or even at the national Cancer institute, and we’ve had students who have done art conservation internships. So, usually, the students are combining chemistry with either an interest in health related interests, or with a second major, as it was in the case of the art preservation internship.


Are there any cool things we should know about the chemistry research program at Furman?

Well, Furman chemistry department has one of the largest undergraduate research programs in the nature. Last summer we had 54 undergraduate students working full time for 10 weeks with paid stipends from one funding source or another. Those students were working side-by-side with faculty members, in their research labs. Some groups were smaller, some were bigger. One student was working with Dr Knight doing matrix isolation analysis of new unstable molecules. Larger groups, like Dr Hanks’ look at new surface coating to prevent biofouling, whether it’s on implanted medical devices, or the coating of a boat. Dr Hanks just had a paper get accepted for publication about two weeks ago on some of his latest results. Dr Springsteen is part of this huge center for chemical evolution and he just had another paper get accepted last week. Dr Wagenknecht had 2 papers published this past spring and summer on his solar energy research. There’s lot of exciting stuff happening and all of these papers have student co-authors, it’s not just a faculty member grabbing the data from the student and publishing it. These students do research, collect and interpret their data, and then we send them off to conferences where they present that data. We had 32 students presenting their research at the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society (SERMACS) in Columbia, SC just last weekend.

Well, these are all the questions I had for you, but do you any additional comments for prospective students?

One of the things about a chemistry major is that you can do so many things with a degree in chemistry. It’s not just designed for students who want to spend the rest of their life working in a lab, or are pre-Med. While it certainly prepares people for those opportunities, we’ve had students that’ve gone directly into industry, regulatory science, doing patent law, going to divinity school and using this ability to think critically and ask questions as they work with people. No matter what you end up doing later, it’s a degree that helps you think clearly and critically.

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