Good chemistry: Building a bridge to a graduate degree

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Edith Onyeozili (far left), assistant professor of chemistry at Florida A&M University (FAMU), in the lab with Kevin Walker, MSU associate professor and co-director of the Bridge to a Chemistry Doctorate Program, and Monique Noel, undergraduate student at FAMU.

The Bridge to a Chemistry Doctorate Program began in late 2011 when Edith Onyeozili, assistant professor of chemistry at Florida A&M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, and Rob Maleczka, MSU Department of Chemistry chairperson and her former Ph.D. adviser, imagined a partnership between MSU and FAMU, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

Onyeozili received her Ph.D. in chemistry from MSU in 2006 and knew that MSU’s chemistry facilities could help support her independent research. In addition, a collaboration could also prepare HBCU students for competitive enrollment in the MSU chemistry graduate program.

“At Florida A&M we encourage our students to see how other schools do things,” Onyeozili said. “We tell them about research internships in industry and at other universities; this exposure to an environment different from our school broadens their experience.”

Onyeozili and one of her undergraduate students, Joel Sankar, worked last summer in Maleczka’s lab.

“This collaboration was a first for MSU, linking research faculty from MSU chemistry with a faculty member from an HBCU sharing common research interests,” said Kevin Walker, MSU associate professor of chemistry and of biochemistry & molecular biology, and co-director of the bridge program, with Maleczka.

Onyeozili is back this summer, with undergraduate student Monique Noel. Joining the program this summer is Erick Ellis, assistant professor of chemistry at Alabama AMU in Huntsville, with one of his undergraduate students, Sam Taylor.

“From my personal experience, an inspirational HBCU experience offers familiar surroundings for students,” said Ellis, an alumnus of the HBCU Jackson State University in Mississippi. “However, they will eventually encounter a more diverse demographic as they advance in science. The bridge program prepares HBCU students for these socially different environments.”

The co-directors foresee a “4 plus” component that bridges the four-year HBCU chemistry bachelor’s degree with an MSU graduate degree program that tracks outstanding HBCU undergraduates toward a master’s or Ph.D. degree, with the idea that these students will one day be faculty mentors.

“Few HBCU campuses have research facilities for students to explore options in the sciences,” Walker said. “Our objective is to provide mentoring to enhance the chemistry research experience of the students. The program also builds productive research collaborations between the universities.”