Science insiders

College scholars look deep.

By Melissa Bray
Leyland del Re, Tim Reichart and Rachael Beaton in the Charles L. Brown Science and Engineering Library in Clark Hall.

Leyland del Re, Tim Reichart and Rachael Beaton in the Charles L. Brown Science and Engineering Library in Clark Hall.
Photo by Tom Cogill.

Ambitious and accomplished students who conducted scientific research before they even finished high school are enrolling at the University as College Science Scholars.

The program, now in its third year, gives a small group, selected during the admissions process, access to the best of U.Va.’s research facilities as well as individual attention.

“They come in like dynamos,” says Karen Schmidt, assistant professor of psychology and College Science Scholars (CSS) administrator. “The program gives them an early window of opportunity to help their education and professional careers.”

The program grew from the work of the chairs of the science departments as well as Peter Brunjes and George Hornberger, associate deans in Arts & Sciences.

“We want to have a larger and stronger undergraduate science program, so this is just the beginning. We set out to make U.Va. more attractive,” says astronomy chair Robert Rood.

CSS offers students a large institution’s benefits, such as the wide variety of subjects — like quantum physics — but with the intimacy of a small university.

“Generally, scientific research is hard to find at small universities because of the expense,” says Brunjes. “Most hot science schools are big.” CSS introduces students to about 30 professors in their first year alone.

The program offers students the individual attention that most large research universities cannot offer. “Basically, most of the program revolves around mentoring,” says Brunjes.

College Science Scholars are also encouraged to do experiments and lab testing early on in their undergraduate work. “We realized that, in our own careers, getting involved in research early on was so important,” says Rood.

Rachael Beaton (Astronomy, Physics ’07), says Rood, “is an example of just the type of thing we want to see happen. She started doing research in her first year.”

“Truly in science there is no way to really understand the subject except to dive in head first, and usually this is only accomplished through involvement in research,” says Beaton, who is already taking graduate-level equivalents to her undergraduate requirements.

“CSS has given me a backstage pass to everything that is going on at this university,” she says. “I think that the deeper we look, the more beautiful and the more breathtaking the world becomes.”

In her first year, says Leyland del Re (Environmental Sciences ’07), she was already whetting her appetite with primary research and working closely with the professors. She gathered data this summer in Alaska for her study of arctic vegetation and nutrient cycling in the tundra. Del Re uses her advisers and mentors for everything from course requirements to advice about her future.“It has been nice to have a support system in that the program gives a little extra oomph to your status with professors,” she says.

The program’s emphasis on interdisciplinary studies helps students understand that science offers options — neurochemistry as well as chemistry, for example.

Adds Rood, “High school students have heard of chemistry, physics, biology and math, but my impression is that they don’t know what research really amounts to even in those fields. We wanted to expose them to a diversity of research.”

Rood sees students holding stereotyped images of scientists, the most common being the image of bearded men in white lab coats. “Yes, I have a beard,” he says. “No, I don’t wear a white coat. I don’t even own one.”

Deep into the examination of designing new organic reactions facilitated by a molybdenum catalyst and sporting no beard, Tim Reichart (Chemistry ’07) works with chemistry professor Dean Harman. Reichart says the CSS program gives him firsthand access to the research going on around U.Va. Harman, a regular presenter in the CSS seminar series, has been a mentor for a number of the students. “I like meeting these exceptional young scientists and working with them,” he says.

“Tim has made good progress,” adds Harman. “I expect he will be a co-author on a paper before he graduates.”