Research grants lead to career opportunities for students

by Laurie Krasin

Ron Theys

Everyone remembers that one special professor who mentored them. The professor who changed the course of their life and influenced their career choice.

Faculty mentorship is that hard-to-define educational experience that can have long-reaching impact.

One way that students at UW-Fond du Lac get this important experience is through undergraduate research projects on campus. 

Opportunities like this are usually reserved for juniors or seniors at larger universities. It’s different at UW-Fond du Lac. Students are able to participate in undergraduate research during their first or second year of college. These experiences often chart the course of their future career and provide valuable connections in their chosen field of study. 

The chance to do undergraduate research is possible at UW-Fond du Lac thanks to grants, faculty mentorship, university collaborations and community partnerships. A recent $10,000 grant from the UW System Undergraduate Research and Discovery Grant program is funding five projects at UW-Fond du Lac (see related story). 

One of these projects is a continuing collaboration between two University of Wisconsin schools. UW-Fond du Lac Professor Ronald Theys, Ph.D., has been collaborating on research of an anti-inflammatory drug with UW-Milwaukee Professor M. Mahmun Hossain, Ph.D. 

The learning is both practical and philosophical according to Theys. “Some of the practical things they learn are new lab skills and techniques as well as application of theoretical concepts to worldly applications.” 

On a philosophical level, Theys says the experience gives students the opportunity to explore their interests and curiosities. Hossain agrees and adds that research students gain invaluable experience that can’t be attained in the classroom. “They gain practical experience with chemistry in a real laboratory setting, learn to read papers in chemical journals, design experiments and present their findings to their peers,” said Hossain. 

All of this helps students build a career portfolio. Several UW-Fond du Lac students who have participated in undergraduate research with Theys have gone on to pursue careers in chemistry. 

“It challenges higher-achieving students and pulls them beyond their comfort levels. Undergraduate research is often the catalyst, to use a chemistry term, for propelling them to a desire for a higher level of education, often a Ph.D.,” Theys added. 

Two former students who have done just that are UW-Fond du Lac alumna Sarah Oehm, a Ph.D. student at UW-Milwaukee and alumnus Eric Bloch who received his Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley. 

Bloch is now a postdoctoral researcher working with professors at Harvard and MIT. After his two years at UW-Fond du Lac, Bloch transferred to UW-Milwaukee and went on to graduate school at UC-Berkeley. 

Bloch credits his experience at UW-Fond du Lac as being directly responsible for his current position.

“After taking two years off after high school, I went to UW-Fond du Lac with no idea of what I wanted to do,” said Bloch. 

It was during a general chemistry class with Theys when Bloch first realized he wanted to do something related to chemistry for the rest of his life. Then, he began participating in the research with Theys. “This led me to realize I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry and be involved in research for my career,” said Bloch. “I learned a lot about chemistry taking coursework, but I really learned to think like a scientist during the research experience.” 

Theys feels the value of a collaboration with a research institution like UW-Milwaukee is immensely important to college freshman and sophomores. 

“It provides an opportunity for undergraduates to work on graduate level projects,” he explained. “It also provides access to graduate student and professor-level expertise and mentoring. This helps students develop contacts and connections to experts in their field.” 

The experience also helps students develop teamwork, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking on the highest educational levels in the field. “They learn from experts who have varied backgrounds, perspectives and experiences,” said Theys. “That is, they experience diversity.” 

His students at UW-Fond du Lac are also exposed to advanced equipment like Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) instruments which are normally only discussed in a class. Through this collaboration students are able to see these instruments and watch how they are used Theys added. 

Thinking creatively, solving problems, and finding innovation - these are the important skills employers of today need and the careers of the future will require. This is what students learn by participating in undergraduate research at UW-Fond du Lac. Students from area high schools have also been able to experience being a part of this research collaboration.

Through programs like Youth Options, Concurrent Enrollment or Course Options, students can earn college credit while still in high school. Alex Lundberg from Fond du Lac High School and Tyler Beres from Campbellsport High School were enrolled in chemistry courses at UW-Fond du Lac and assisted Theys with the research. These programs are important community partnerships between UW-Fond du Lac and the area high schools and open the door to greater learning opportunities for the students.