Department of Chemistry Profile

Professor Mark Turnbull talks about the chemistry program and the importance of undergraduate participation in research.

What do you think that Clark has to offer students who want to study chemistry?

Prof. Turnbull: The thing that makes Clark unique is the combination of our small size, and the presence of the Ph.D. program. We have full Ph.D. programs in the sciences, but of a size where they don't supplant the undergraduate programs; rather, they supplement them. There is a level of research and academic involvement taking place that you don't find at your typical, undergraduate-only college. But because the graduate programs are small, it means that undergraduates who become involved actually do research; they're not just watching and washing glassware for the graduate students. Undergrads get involved with the faculty. Our faculty members don't direct post-docs who direct graduate students who direct undergraduates. Our set-up really is unique. Every student who wants to become involved with research has the opportunity, and they are encouraged to do so.

How early in their program can they become involved?

Prof. Turnbull: We've had students start as early as second-semester freshman year. Typically, beginning in the junior year, or the summer following, is more common. When a student begins is dependent upon the student and the project. Different kinds of research require more background before you can become involved. We also invest a lot in teaching the students the background materials specific to our fields of research, in providing them with the chemicals, the glassware, the physical set-up that they need to do the work, and in training them in unusual techniques.

From my point of view, research is the most important thing for an undergraduate to do. I don't want to detract from formal course work, because you have to do that first, and continue it, because it provides the necessary background, vocabulary, laboratory and problem-solving skills. But research is the chance to apply what you have been studying. And it's the opportunity to see that what the popular press views as a dichotomy between teaching and research is really not right.

Research is the best teaching tool that I have, for both for my undergraduate and my graduate students. I can set them a problem where they can't go to the library and look up the answer, or even go to the library to see if they did it right, because no one's done it before. Research gives students the opportunity to use the background that they have to do an experiment, to generate enough data and a sufficiently cogent argument that they can convince their peers that what they've done is correct. By peers I mean the greater scientific community, because this is work that we publish. I would say that 70-80 percent of the undergraduates who do research in chemistry at Clark, wind up doing research that's publication quality and is published in national and international journals. The number isn't 100 percent, because when investigating the unknown, you don't know what you will find! And sometimes what you find is 'this doesn't work', and that's very hard to publish!

Is there a lot of collaboration within chemistry?

Prof. Turnbull: Very much so, and collaboration is very typical in the sciences. It's a combination of using it as a learning tool where faculty members have some expertise, the graduate students have some expertise, the undergraduates frequently bring their own expertise. And even at the faculty level, these are all very collaborative because no one has the expertise in all the areas needed to solve a problem. It's good for students because they get to see that you don't have to be the expert in everything. That's not the way the real world functions. You have to have a general knowledge, and then be very good at one area.

I think many non-scientists imagine that scientists work in a very solitary setting, and that doesn't seem to be the case. Science done in a vacuum is not helpful. You not only have to do the work, but you have to communicate what you've learned. Science simply comes from the word for knowledge, and that's all that science is. But knowledge that is not passed on to others is of no use. So part of it is 'do the work', but part of it is 'tell the world what you've learned'. We do this with our students both through publications in various journals, and presentations at meetings. I frequently will take one or two undergrads with me to the Northeast Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society, where they can present their own papers.

It's all fun. Fun is the best reason for getting involved. It has to be something that you enjoy. I get up in the morning and I get to go to work; I don't get up in the morning and have to go to work.