“Experimental science research is like joining a moving train,” says chemistry professor Lee Park. “The student steps onto the train mid-journey and joins the trip for a while.” In what is one of the largest summer science undergraduate research programs at a liberal arts college, nearly 200 Williams students step onto such rides for ten weeks each year. They join the lab of a faculty member whose research benefits from the extra hands and minds, and they get to find out what research science is all about. “Learning how to do research in the sciences is really an apprenticeship model,” Park explains.
It’s a model Park embraces. This summer, each of the three students in her lab describes her as a mentor. They are working on a project that will eventually result in the production of organic molecules that can be used in devices currently made with traditional inorganic metals and semiconductors. Devices such as solar cells, television screens, computer displays, and traffic lights can become more efficient, lighter, and more environmentally friendly if they are created with organic molecules, the types of which Park and her students are working to build.
Rising sophomore Dylan Freas explains the day to day workings of the lab. “We start with a very basic compound and add to it, to see if the properties of the compound change to absorb light more efficiently, for example.” Freas, who plans to major in chemistry, was drawn to Park’s lab in part because he likes to “play with chemicals.” But more important to him was the opportunity to continue his apprenticeship with Park, which started when he was a work-study student in her lab last fall. “She is extremely involved in the lab, she has high expectations, but she makes it fun. If something messes up, she works through it with us.”
“I wanted to work in a synthetic lab,” says Melissa Cendejas ’16, who applied to work in Park’s lab this summer after taking a course with her last fall. “Every day when I wake up, I’m excited to come in to work.” Cendejas says the work can become frustrating when it doesn’t go as hoped, but that “when it works out, it is really exciting.” And during those frustrating moments, she is glad to have Park in the lab to help refocus her, return her to the literature for new ideas, and encourage her to get back at it.
Peter Clement ’14, a chemistry major, agrees. “Professor Park’s mentoring style really meshes with how I like to learn. She is very hands on, she keeps you on task, but she gives you a lot of freedom day to day.” Clement will continue to work in the lab for his thesis next year. Having worked with Park for most of his time at Williams, he is grateful for the relationship. “Her office door is always open, and getting help whenever I need it and advice whenever I want it is what keeps me here.” Clement explains that for his thesis, he will be given “a decent size portion of the project” and he will take it as far as he can during the year.
“If a student joins my lab to make a solar cell, they might not make one during a summer,” Park explains. “They really have to enjoy the day to day process and know this is part of a larger goal.” And while these students know they may not see the end result, they are not deterred. They take pride in the fact that their work will bring the train that much farther along its track.