It’s not rocket science—it’s chemistry. Which is arguably even more complex.
Associate Professor of Chemistry Steven Stevenson breaks down lessons as well as he breaks down chemical bonds—he’s well-known around campus for including students in his research projects and for being a great professor, too.
“I’m a new molecule chaser,” Stevenson says. “We like to make new molecules, which have possible application areas like medical agents, pharmaceuticals, and MRI contrast agents. If you take the structure of some of these new molecules and put other metal atoms inside this cage, you can ultimately make photovoltaic devices out of these molecules. There are uses.”
COMPONENTS OF THE JOB
Stevenson was hired by IPFW in 2011 to complete three types of duties—teaching, research, and service.
“My research area is the production, separation, and purification of new molecule structures so that we can investigate, publish, and write up grant proposals based on the findings,” he says. “In doing that, we can take our students to conferences, mentor undergrad students, and help build their careers and their curriculum vitae—then those who want to get into graduate, medical, or pharmacy school can have undergraduate research to supplement their degrees.”
For the service aspect of the position, Stevenson does internal and external service—the internal comes at the university, Department of Chemistry, and the College of Arts and Sciences levels, and the external extends to proposals for granting foundations such as the National Science Foundation and reviewing to-be-published journal articles sent from editors in the field. All of this makes IPFW more visible to the field and community at large.
“Back in 2010 and 2011, I applied for many different kinds of jobs,” he says. “I applied at some large Ph.D. schools. I applied to some smaller, historical teaching institutions. I applied for a department head position at another school, so I had covered small schools and big schools. I had several possibilities when I traveled to IPFW. I came up to Fort Wayne—and I’d never been to Indiana. I could really see myself being here during the interview. IPFW really impressed me.
“The reason why I chose this place—as corny as it sounds—is because I thought that I could make a difference here.”
ON A MOLECULAR LEVEL
“At IPFW, given the wider array of work that we do, we don’t have the infrastructure and the instruments and the postdocs and the graduate students,” Stevenson explains. “I collaborate with other scientists for application development. What I do is make new molecules. With instruments in the lab—the mass spectrometer, this high-performance liquid chromatograph—we are able to find new molecules.
“There are a hundred different kinds, different sizes of these cages—some are small, some are large, some have one atom inside, some have four atoms, some of them have three… You have at least a hundred different kinds of compounds. You might see a new peak or recognize a new molecule there that hasn’t been reported yet. Then you really need to isolate it, prove what the structure is—which usually means getting about a milligram or two of material purified—and then send it to a collaborator to get an x-ray crystal structure, which is a three-dimensional arrangement of atoms, and you can prove that what you think you have really is.”
Half of Stevenson’s work is separation science and half is making the material, itself. The research focus is a large draw for undergraduate students in need of research opportunities, who may not have even considered that their research work during college would involve constructing and detecting new molecular particles—and his students are not the only ones who are impressed.
“I’ve been blessed with multiple National Science Foundation grants based on the work of these undergraduate research students and the publications that they do,” he says. “They like to fund different types of universities. We’re known as a predominant teaching institution, which is a type the National Science Foundation likes to have doing research. If you do a lot of research and you mentor undergraduate students and they go on to graduate school, there is value in that.”
BRILLIANCE IN NUMBERS
Stevenson’s student researchers are not just recruited from his classes—they literally just show up at his door from time to time.
“One of my better research students who worked in my lab for two years met one of my undergraduate researchers in class. She came up to the fourth floor and said, ‘Hey, I hear about some stuff that you’re doing—I want in. Do you have a spot for me?’ I was like, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ Sometimes they just come unsolicited to the doorstep.”
Now that he teaches predominantly freshmen, most of the students he meets are 18 or 19—this can be good for him and for them as well, as they can get three or four years of research and experience in their academic career at IPFW alone.
“Other people also have a degree, so to make yourself different, you can do research and have some publications and research opportunities in addition to that degree,” Stevenson explains. “That being said, I can pay students or students can do things as volunteers—or they can sign up for an undergraduate research class. Most of my students are volunteers and they’re willing to see the value of résumé building.”
Stevenson admits that his team building strategy is different than many of his colleagues—most faculty will specifically select students who are majoring in their field. Only one out of his five student researchers is a chemistry major—the other four come from the geology, psychology, nursing, and engineering departments.
“I have opportunities to provide research experience beyond just a department,” Stevenson explains. “I try to build my research group around humble, nice, and intelligent people. It doesn’t matter to me what their major is because I can train them and teach them, and—if they’re humble and nice—then they’re more amenable toward training.
“People continue to say, ‘How in the world do you get all that research done?’ I say, ‘Well, we have some smart people at IPFW.’ We really do.”
PROGRAM SNAPSHOT: DEPARTMENT OF CHEMISTRY
Find solutions. In the Department of Chemistry, experiment with a budding career in the sciences, whether your academic endeavors are pre-medicine, pre-dentistry, or pre-pharmacy. Combine chemical knowledge with other fields of study and explore the possibilities that come with a degree in chemistry. We graduate
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