July 15, 2014, BY Paula Cogan Myers

STEM scholar Hannah Litwa '18 with Professor Morgan Benowitz-Fredericks, biology
STEM scholar Hannah Litwa '18 is working with Professor Morgan Benowitz-Fredericks, biology, to study hormones and development.

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Who studies Martian climate models, water contaminants in soil or how chromosomes communicate with each other over a distance? Scientists do. And this summer 14 faculty from the departments of biology, chemical engineering, chemistry, geology and physics & astronomy are welcoming Bucknell's newest scientists into their labs. 

Talented admitted students, particularly from underrepresented groups, who plan to pursue science, technology, engineering or mathematics were invited to apply to the program and were chosen for their potential in these fields. The first cohort includes 14 Bucknell STEM Scholars, a program funded by a National Science Foundation grant that will bring a new group to Bucknell in each of the next five years.

"The purpose of the grant is to help students understand what research is early on, so they are excited and enticed to stay in a STEM field," said Professor Lynn Breyfogle, mathematics, who is an associate dean in the College of Arts & Sciences and a co-investigator on the grant. In addition to the five-week summer program, the students will spend an additional 10 weeks on campus doing research during a subsequent summer.

"These are absolute beginners. They are beginners as college students, much less as scientists and researchers," explained Professor Dee Casteel, chemistry, also a grant co-investigator. "We really want the experience they have in these five weeks to be positive, reinforcing and confidence-building for them as budding scientists."  

Each student is working in a different lab alongside a faculty mentor and upperclass students. While some may have a strong connection with the lab they start in, the program encourages them to learn more about their own interests and the opportunities available to them in various STEM disciplines at Bucknell.

The students attend weekly academic success lunches to learn about campus resources like the Teaching & Learning Center and the Counseling & Student Development Center. Breyfogle and Casteel, along with student mentors Jared Feint '15 and Beth Rogers '15, provide the connections to people and resources the scholars will need to make their transition to college life.

STEM Scholar Leonard Orozco '18 thinks that having experienced mentors is one of the best parts of the program. "Their feedback allows me to continually come out of my comfort zone and become a better scientist as well as a better person," he said.

Many of the students applied for the program because they thought the opportunity to do research this early in their college career was too great to pass up, and as the summer progresses, that's proving to be true.

"I think I'll have greater confidence in my classes knowing I can handle lab techniques and understand things that are new to me," said Chrissy Bendzinski '18, who is studying organic polymer chemistry with Professor Eric Tillman, chemistry.

Katie Lillenthal '18 believes the program will help her determine if research science will be her future career. She didn't have lab experience before, but now she's working on her own project with Professor Tom Solomon, physics & astronomy.

"I love working with Professor Solomon and have gotten a feel for the physics department. My favorite part of the STEM program would have to be the enthusiasm, passion and determination of the researchers and professors," she said. "I really like the research, and I hope to continue studying chaos during my four years at Bucknell." 

George Shields, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, is a chemistry professor and primary investigator on the grant. Experience has shown him how important it is for students to have an early introduction to research so they better understand real-world science.

"Students don't understand what it's like working as a professional scientist until they actually participate in research projects," Shields said. "Lack of confidence is one of the main reasons students falter when seeking STEM degrees. Knowing they are capable researchers and that their professors and fellow students have persevered despite challenging classes and lab work, helps motivate them to stay on track to graduate."