My first full month as an assistant professor of chemistry at Claflin University was exciting and very hectic! Not surprisingly, my biggest challenge has been learning to balance the time I spend teaching, grading, mentoring, and advising students; attending faculty meetings; and developing a research program. Trust me, 24 hours a day is not enough time! But, I am adjusting, nevertheless.
Teaching takes up by far the most of my time. This is as it should be: Claflin is not a research-intensive institution, and its focus is very much on teaching. I teach one lecture and three laboratory courses. Teaching the courses is the easy part. The challenge is in the preparation. Reviewing the chapter material, selecting homework problems, and creating exams and quizzes take a lot of work. But, I am enjoying it. The students are smart and enthusiastic about the class material. They love to learn, and they ask a ton of questions! I also have three wonderful TAs who help with the lab. And I work with a great faculty and staff within Claflin's Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. They are extremely supportive, and as a new faculty member, I need their kind of support.
Developing a Research Program
Establishing an undergraduate research program at a small liberal arts institution has its advantages and disadvantages. The major disadvantage is that small institutions do not have significant research resources. However, being here at Claflin has allowed me to collaborate with individuals at larger institutions in the state, such as Furman and Clemson universities. I am also looking into a potential collaboration with a colleague at the University of South Carolina. Many faculty members at majority schools are very interested in collaborating with their counterparts at minority-serving institutions. These collaborations give the faculty at the smaller schools access to important research resources, but in addition, they create a pool of potential minority student recruits into graduate schools at the partnering majority institution. Thus, these partnerships are an important vehicle for populating the proverbial "pipeline." Moreover, I should also point out that Claflin students hoping to earn undergraduate degrees in science and mathematics are required to conduct research and prepare and defend a thesis, so there is an institutional need for research programs, too.
Being out of academics and the laboratory for a year led to the buildup of a little rust. However, conducting research is like riding a bike: Once you learn how to do it, you never really forget! But if you are seriously considering returning to academics after pursuing an away-from-the-bench position, I recommend that you keep up-to-date with the scientific literature. One of the benefits I had while I was an employee of AAAS was the opportunity to read Science every week. In addition, I took advantage of the many other scientific journals and magazines that were at my disposal at AAAS.
One reason for keeping up with the literature is so that you can start thinking about research projects you'll be able to pursue once you're back in academia. Talk to your mentors and other former colleagues about potential research ideas. Before I interviewed for my position at Claflin, I thought about the kind of research program I wanted to develop with undergraduates. I also created an abstract of my ideas and circulated it among my network of mentors, peers, and friends in the chemistry field, who offered valuable feedback. As a result, I created a brief proposal and successfully obtained start-up funds from Claflin for my research. My next goal is to obtain promising data that I can use to secure long-term funding from a government agency such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.
I honestly think the key to being successful in research is that you have to learn to be creative and innovative. This is not something that can be taught--you have to learn it. And try not to put yourself into a box. My formal training is as an inorganic photochemist. But I have been exposed to so many other research areas through my postdoctoral appointment at LSU and my summer internship at Eastman Kodak that I actually have the broad scientific background that is a prerequisite to success in research.
Giving Back and Mentoring Students
As you know, few minorities earn doctorates in SMET (science, mathematics, engineering, technology) fields, and so one of the many challenges we face as a nation is to prepare these students to excel in graduate science programs (see box). In my inorganic chemistry course, there are five students, four seniors and one junior. One day before lecturing, I asked what they planned to do after earning their undergraduate degrees. I asked this question because as editor of MiSciNet I was directly involved in an effort to address why so few minorities pursue graduate degrees in science. But, I was also just naturally curious. All except one indicated that they wanted to attend graduate school, and they were really interested in hearing about my experiences. Moreover, I was very pleased to find out that two of them were considering attending my undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral institutions for their graduate work. I found myself in a position in which my own career path could be of direct help to others exploring theirs. I briefly described my experiences at each institution, but I was more interested in finding out what my students believed graduate school was really all about.
So, I asked them. During our discussion, I used an article from MiSciNet entitled The Unwritten Rules of Graduate School to make a point. Authored by Charles Stewart, a third-year graduate student studying plant biology at Cornell, the article focuses on four very critical areas: research versus coursework, reading the literature, attending conferences, and networking with your peers. My students indicated that they realized that graduate school was going to be "a lot of work" and that they would have to "learn a lot of material on their own." I was very pleased with these responses, because they illustrated that the students recognized that they would not only have to work hard in grad school but also learn to become independent thinkers. This is what graduate school is all about.
Sibrina Collins was editor of MiSciNet from 2001-02. She is now an assistant professor of chemistry at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.