Deparment profile: Chemistry

The elements of change

By Melinda Pradarelli

Elements of Change

Over the next three years the Cornell chemistry department, including the building it’s housed in and the nature of its curriculum, will undergo a number of elemental changes. But the long-standing tradition of faculty mentoring and student research will remain a hallmark of the program. The most visible change will come in the form of a $12.5 million addition to and renovation of the West Science Center that is slated for approximately five years from now, depending on fund-raising.

The addition will provide larger and better equipped teaching and research lab space for biology, chemistry, and physics students. It also will house the primary chemistry and cellular/molecular biology teaching and research labs. Beyond aesthetics, the idea is to create a facility that encourages scientific interaction between chemistry and biology students in and out of the classroom.

Experimenting with courses

The new facility reflects a fundamental shift in the way chemistry—and biology—will be taught at Cornell, says chemistry department chair Jeff Cardon. The idea is to integrate the chemistry and biology curricula. “If you tried to characterize it, what we are doing is experimenting with a new approach to teaching chemistry,” Cardon says. “The American Chemical Society is pushing chemistry departments to teach more biochemistry. One of the challenges that the biology curriculum faces is that students need to know some chemistry right away. But when chemistry is taught within the context of a biology class, it is only a snapshot; it is disconnected from the underlying concepts and is difficult to apply.”

To facilitate the change, a new faculty member will be hired in fall 2008 to help design the new integrated curriculum; ideally, the new person will be a biochemist or molecular biologist with a strong chemistry background. This person, who will be in both departments, would join the existing faculty, which includes organic chemist Charley Liberko, inorganic chemist Cindy Strong, and physical chemist Craig Teague, as well as two half-time faculty: Cardon in biochemistry (who is also half-time in biology) and organic chemist Addison Ault.

The department has already started to “test drive” one part of the proposed curriculum: blending introductory molecular biology and general chemistry. Strong and Barbara Christie-Pope, associate professor of biology, team taught the course over two blocks in spring 2007. “Our goal was to integrate the biology and chemistry topics,” Strong says. “For example, I introduced amino acids, the students built models of amino acids and linked them together to make a protein, and then Barbara talked about the three-dimensional structure of proteins. Throughout the course, we tried to emphasize the connections between the disciplines of biology and chemistry.”

Teams and topics

Last spring Teague and Liberko also team-taught introductory and advanced courses on Forensic Science: Real Life CSI. Students were steeped in the basic science related to crime scene investigations and worked with Jason Kolowski ’98, who was a guest lecturer for a week. Kolowski is a forensic scientist with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City. He shared his extensive experience working in forensic biology and with mitochondrial DNA. As a medical examiner in New York City, he was intimately involved with forensic recovery efforts following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.

Kolowski accompanied the students on a field trip to the state of Iowa’s crime laboratory in Ankeny. The trip and Kolowski’s visit were co-sponsored by Dimensions: The Center for the Science and Culture of Healthcare and the department of chemistry. To prepare for the course, Liberko and Teague also received faculty development funds from Dimensions to learn more about forensic DNA analysis. “Because of the funding we were able to incorporate more of the medical aspects of forensics into the course,” Liberko says. “The funding took this course in a direction we couldn’t have gone without it.”

Internal and external funding also helped support other chemistry guests and lecturers, such as Ralph “Chris” Christoffersen ’59, a general partner at Morgenthaler Ventures, a venture capital firm in Boulder, Colo. Christoffersen received a Cornell degree in chemistry and mathematics. He went on to teach and to become president of Colorado State University before joining the pharmaceutical industry. Last year he was a Beta Omicron Distinguished Alumni Visitor in a number of Cornell classrooms, including talking to chemistry students about work his company is doing with catalytic RNA as a therapy tool.

Dedication to student research

Students also continue to enhance their studies through summer research with faculty—a hallmark of the Cornell chemistry department that began in the 1950s under the direction of Bill Deskin, an inorganic chemist. Today, the Deskin Fund continues to support faculty-student research each summer.

“The long tradition of student-faculty research is a point of pride in our department,” Strong says. “Currently, there are four of us who typically work with a total of six to eight students in the summer.”

Cardon agrees. “I think there are two things about our curriculum that give our students an advantage. The biggest is the fact that students have access to professionally trained scientists and professional equipment. We don’t tell them, ‘You can use these machines, but not these,’ which is how it was when I was in college. They use everything we have. Also, in graduate school one of the most important relationships is the one you have with your advisor. So the fact that our students get to learn how to relate to a professor while conducting research as undergraduates is very important.”

Junior Brittany Szczepanik, a double major in chemistry and English, conducted research with Teague and two other students last summer on how specific molecules interact with specific surfaces. “What we were able to do was incredible,” she says. “We tested the products of our experiments using various, expensive equipment.” The team ran samples through infrared spectroscopy and UV-visible spectroscopy at Cornell, Raman spectroscopy at Coe College, and X ray photoelectron spectroscopy at the University of Illinois Department of Energy facilities. They also did extensive literature research at the University of Iowa.

Other research projects focus on elements of Lou Gehrig’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and organic dyes.

Two long-term goals of the chemistry faculty are to find ways to secure more internship opportunities for students and to continue to upgrade equipment. “As science continues to change so quickly,” Strong says, “there is more of an emphasis on the use of instrumentation. Everything is computer interfaced now, and we have to continue to keep our instrumentation current for students.”