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Department of ChemistryUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignDepartment of ChemistryUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In the News, 2004

New class emphasizes the chemistry and biology of everyday life

Postmarks, spring 2004
James E. Kloeppel
(217) 244-1073;

Akinola Soyode-Johnson watched with silent anticipation as forensic scientists prepared evidence at the Indiana State Police Crime Lab in Indianapolis. The scientists were about to analyze suspected drug samples using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a technique that can identify individual chemical compounds. The results of this state-of-the-art chemical analysis could help solve a case and send a criminal to prison.

"Sitting in class, it's sometimes difficult to see how the material I am learning is applicable to normal life," said Soyode-Johnson, a sophomore from Nigeria who is majoring in chemistry. "But to go into a laboratory and actually see how this information is being used in everyday situations . well, that puts a lot of power behind the knowledge."

Soyode-Johnson and his classmates were on a field trip to the Indiana crime lab as part of a new chemistry course called "The Chemistry and Biology of Everyday Life." The course was developed by UI chemistry professor Yi Lu, who received a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help find ways to make science courses more engaging for undergraduate students. He is co-teaching the class with Brandy S. Russell, a HHMI postdoctoral fellow at the UI.

"Traditional science courses follow an orderly sequence where advanced courses are built upon the knowledge gained in previous courses," Lu said. "Although this presents information logically, some students may not understand why a particular concept is important until they use it in a research project much later. This can lead to frustration or loss of interest. In our new course, we want students to recognize what the world of science is really like, and how it impacts their daily lives."

Lu's primary goals are to make the required science classes more meaningful, and to get students involved in research much earlier than usual. "This new class is not intended to replace the traditional courses," he said. "We want to complement those courses by supporting and focusing the student's interest."
Lu's class was first offered in the spring semester of 2003. Students are encouraged to take the class more than once, although less credit is offered for succeeding semesters. The main idea, Lu said, is to enhance student interest in science through a variety of techniques that include interesting classroom presentations and visits to industrial laboratories and scientific meetings.

"The course exposed me to many everyday applications of biology and chemistry that I had previously taken for granted," Soyode-Johnson said. "Some were simple things . like the chemistry of soap, where we learned how soap is made and how it keeps you clean. Others were more complex, like learning the basics behind how nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy works. But the course also reinforced my interest in pursuing chemistry as a career, and revealed many fascinating areas of research that I could follow."

His favorite part of the course, however, was the "Jeopardy" quiz, modeled after a popular TV game show. "The students were divided into teams that studied together, reviewing the material that had been presented in class," Soyode-Johnson said. "The quizzes were a lot of fun to participate in, regardless of which team won."

Brook DeMoisy, a sophomore from Collinsville, Ill., thought the most exciting part of the course was attending the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, held in New Orleans. "The conference was huge, with scientists coming from all over the United States," she said. "I was amazed at the breadth of research topics that were presented, and realized the importance of obtaining laboratory research experience while still an undergraduate."

When DeMoisy enrolled in the course, she was majoring in general biology. While taking the course . which brought Brook DeMoisytogether many different areas of biology and chemistry . she decided general biology was too general, and changed her major to biochemistry.

"As students, we really need to think hard about what we will be doing after we graduate," DeMoisy said. "I think a lot of people graduate and get a job, which they then hate, because they didn't realize exactly what they would be doing. To be both happy and successful as future scientists, we need more than course work; we need experience."

DeMoisy is gaining that experience, and earning college credit, working in one of Lu's research laboratories, where she helps purify proteins that graduate students use in their experiments. "I really like research," she said, "but it's definitely not a 9 to 5 job."

The new course is designed to stimulate and maintain a student's interest in the chemical sciences, whether he or she is heading for a career in chemistry or some other field.
"One of the problems with teaching chemistry is that on a microscopic level, people have a very hard time relating to chemistry," said Easter Smith, a sophomore from New Paris, Ohio. "But if the instructor can relate chemistry to things in a student's daily life, it has much more meaning and you learn it faster and easier."

A highlight for Smith occurred when the class visited Abbott Laboratories, a major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals and medical products in Chicago. "We received a tour of their research and development facility, and saw firsthand what life as a researcher would be like," she said. "The technology was amazing. It was really fascinating to see, on a large scale, how drugs are developed and tested."

Smith is currently a chemistry major, but she is considering a switch to political science. "I'm considering going into pre-law, perhaps a patent lawyer," she said. "I think an understanding of chemistry will be a great asset for me, especially in patent law, which is a growing field for lawyers. So I think I will major in something like political science and minor in chemistry." The most important aspect of the class, Smith said, is to question what you think and explore your own interests.

Kristi Ryzner, a senior from Orland Park, Ill., who is taking the class for the third time, agrees. "The class is more about how to be a scientist . that is, how to logically question things . as opposed to mastering a set of scientific facts," she said.
"Each time you take the class, there are different opportunities and learning experiences," said Ryzner, who is majoring in biochemistry. "Of course, there are also additional demands and expectations placed upon the student."

For example, as a first-time student, Ryzner had to pick a research topic and prepare a report. As a returning student, she was required to select a topic and prepare a proposal about how she would conduct the research.

The student's interest is truly the starting point of the course, Ryzner said. "Instead of simply supplying us with answers to our questions, the instructors give us tools so we can explore our interests and find the answers ourselves."

In the process, the students also learn a great deal about the science they will encounter in everyday life, like the chemistry behind soap, toothpaste or crime-scene investigation.



Professor Paul C. Lauterbur awarded 2003 Nobel in Medicine
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bullet Insights gained from molecular modeling may lead to better insecticides
bullet Stan Smith to receive 2004 BP Amoco Award for
Innovation in Undergraduate Instruction.
bullet Two chemistry professors named University Scholars
bullet Jeffrey S. Moore receives Dean's Award for Excellence
in Undergraduate Teaching

Molecular level discovery could play role in development of new antibiotics


John Rogers named by MIT's Technology Review Magazine as inventor of one of "10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change Your World."


Professors Ralph Nuzzo and John Rogers co-recipients of $12 million contract from DARPA

bullet Professor John Rogers' paper on microfluidic devices highlighted by Applied Physics Letters
bullet Paul Bohn named Centennial Professor in the Chemical Sciences
bullet The Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust to fund a new $1.1 million Carver Center for Metabolomics through efforts of Professors Wilfred van der Donk, Brenda Wilson, and William Metcalf
bullet Keck Foundation to fund interdisciplinary research in brain disease, damage
bullet Technique kills cancerous cells, leaves healthy cells intact
bullet Jeffrey Moore made Fellow in AAAS

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