Shifting the experimental inorganic chemistry course to a virtual setting came with an unexpected bonus: the skills to write and publish papers in a peer-reviewed journal
By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy
Last summer, as the pandemic numbers crept up and up, Dilek Dogutan was given a new responsibility: teach Chem-145, an experimental inorganic chemistry course, with no access to a lab, lab equipment, or even in-person instruction.
It almost didn’t happen.
In discussions over summer 2020, some faculty advisors expressed reasonable concerns: How could students replicate complex experiments that require heavy, expensive equipment like spectrometers and intense safety measures when working from their kitchen counter or backyard? It seemed like a waste of time to try.
So Dogutan, like many other professionals thrown into the unpredictable chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, got creative. She put aside the original curriculum and re-invented the course for a virtual environment, introducing safe, at-home experiments like analyzing pigments from crushed leaves mixed with rubbing alcohol, building a photometer from scratch, and preparing scientific papers. “The value of what we learned was compounded, somewhat counterintuitively, by remote learning,” said Josh-Kai Lui, one of five undergraduate upperclassmen to take the course last fall. While Lui and his peers may not have gained the same tactile, technical skills as previous students, they earned authorships on two peer-reviewed publications, which they wrote section by section in just one semester.
“We were able to focus on what we can do, instead of what we can’t do,” said Dogutan, a principal research scientist in the Nocera lab and a lecturer in chemistry and chemical biology.
Last summer, to prepare for their new curriculum, two of the Chem-145 teaching fellows donned cameras to film themselves growing two distinct crystals in the lab (by that time, graduate students could access the labs in staggered shifts, following rigorous COVID-19 safety measures). When the course started in the fall, the undergraduates—all of them juniors and seniors—learned how to analyze everything about those single crystals, “the electrons, the bonds, the distance, the geometry, angles, torsional angles, all that,” said Dogutan.
“I definitely feel that this was a valuable experience," said undergraduate Shelby Elizabeth Elder, "and my favorite part of the process was learning how the metrics of the structure gave us clues about the distribution of electrons and the reduction of the dipyrrin ligand versus the metals.” The students also learned to hunt through scientific literature to determine what, if anything, was new about their crystals.
Turns out, a lot was new. The two crystals had never before been published scientific journals. So, Dogutan divided the five undergraduates into two groups of two and three. Together, the groups got to work writing each section of a standard scientific paper: The abstract, methods, discussion, and even graphics to illustrate the never-before-seen structures of their crystals. “Piece by piece, we put this together,” said Dogutan. “We didn’t know whether it would be accepted or not, but that’s always the case with paper writing.”
The crystal strucutre of RuPhos, one of two crystals published in scientific journals by undergraduates in Chem-145. Image created by William Ho, Josh-Kai Lui, and Gregory Valtierra
When the students stumbled—the first version of one group’s abstract was almost a page-long instead of the standard paragraph—Dogutan stepped in to help guide their efforts. “They had to learn a lot of new language,” she said, especially about crystallography. Dogutan estimated the groups went through about 25 drafts before completing their final versions, but she is also quick to emphasize: “All of this is, word by word, their work.”
“Having the opportunity to contribute to a manuscript is as valuable, or even more valuable, as gaining that hands-on experience,” said Gregory Valtierra, one of the undergraduate students in the course. “I was able to get a head start in developing skills that most students do not start to develop until graduate school.”
All five students have very different career goals, ranging from medical and graduate school to consulting and industry. But for all five, having their names on a published scientific study is a boon no matter which career path they choose. Although graduate students are expected to publish papers, it’s rare for undergraduates to gain such a prestigious author spot. Even if they do, most contribute to the research effort behind the publication but rarely to the crafting of the paper presenting the results.
“When I decided to enroll in Chem-145, I had no expectation of publishing a manuscript in a peer-reviewed journal, especially given the virtual setting,” said William Ho, another undergraduate student in the course. “The experience of preparing a manuscript in such a short timeframe and seeing it published so quickly was a good reminder that one does not always need to have a long, elaborate, groundbreaking narrative to contribute to science.”
In December, both papers were accepted by Acta Crystallographica Section C and Acta Crystallographica Section E, journals dedicated to unpublished crystals. The effort was so successful, Dogutan plans to incorporate paper-writing into future versions of Chem-145, whether the course is virtual or not. She is also working on a separate paper, with the working title “Development and Implementation of Virtual Advanced Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory Course during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which will present her innovative curriculum to other teachers looking for fresh, creative ways to engage chemistry students.
The Chem-145 teaching fellows, Kurtis Carsch, Nicholas Ayoub, and Rui Sun, gave their time and expertise to help the papers come together as quickly as they did (while they helped construct photometers and synthesized porphyrins, too). And, as inorganic chemistry experts, Ted Betley and Daniel Nocera, two professors in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, reviewed the papers before submission.
“I’m grateful to have taken this class,” said Josh-Kai Lui, “if not for the novel experience of seeing our work published, then for the chance to meet faculty who were invested in our growth as scholars.”