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Collaboration, chemistry, and the competitive edge

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A professor partners with industry to give his students a leg up in the workforce.

As the saying goes, “It ain’t easy being green.” And nobody knows this better than a recent graduate trying to land their first job in the real world. But in the Department of Chemistry, one professor is running a unique program—training undergraduates to be truly industry-ready by giving them opportunities to work on real industry challenges in the lab, for clients in the surrounding area, across the country, and around the world.

“At most universities, there may be some students working on projects that are funded through industry,” says Dan Sykes. “But in terms of working in an instructional laboratory environment that’s supported through industry, that’s rare.”

Over the years, Sykes and his students have worked with a number of companies in a variety of industries, yet he doesn’t make any money for his efforts and he doesn’t own any resulting intellectual property. The goal, he says, is to give the students experience.

A key component of that experience is learning how scientific instruments actually work. Sykes knows his students will rely on instrumentation in their careers as well as in the classroom, and he thinks it’s critical that they understand the technology underlying the tools they use. To that end, he has them build stripped-down versions of those instruments, and sometimes even new prototypes, entirely from scratch. The intimate knowledge they acquire in the process has, in turn, been instrumental in securing contracts with clients in the private sector as well as state and federal government, for projects ranging from characterizing automotive coatings components to creating new explosive-detecting fibers. They have even been consulted by law enforcement on a number of forensic investigations. And after the contracts have been fulfilled, clients often circle back to Sykes to recruit and hire his students.

“I had an undergraduate who went to interview with a local chromatography company,” he recalls. “She had built a gas chromatograph from scratch, and I told her ‘Take it with you!’ Of course, it’s this big thing and it’s not packaged nicely; it’s ugly, but it works. She took it to the interview and they hired her on the spot. They had never heard of a student ever building a gas chromatograph from scratch. They were pretty impressed.”

A few years later, Sykes says, the company even paid to send the young woman back to Penn State to do a master’s degree with him so they could continue to promote her. A number of Sykes’s students have likewise found success in private industry, while others have been recruited to the public sector, including several currently with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“They love our students!” he says. “Whenever they have an opening for a bachelor’s-level position, they’ll ask me for our undergraduates because they prefer them.”

According to Sykes, most undergraduate chemistry programs in the United States do a very good job of teaching their students how to interpret data. But, he says, “less than 1 percent of those schools actually teach their students anything about the instrumentation. Really what they come away with are some buzz words. It’s very surface-level.”

His goal, Sykes explains, is to provide students with a deeper knowledge base that measures up to industry requirements.

“There’s a big divide between what students learn in school and what industry needs,” he says. “We need to bridge that gap to make our students more competitive.”

So, in addition to building low-cost, basic instruments, his students also learn to use the department’s state-of-the-art research-grade instrumentation—many, if not all, of the same tools and techniques they will later use on the job.

“Anything that they would have to do in industry—method development, validation, optimization—is what they have to do here,” Sykes says. “And that’s not done anywhere else. Our students come out of here highly trained and ready to step into a role. They are much more competitive than anybody coming from another institution right now. They start out with a leg up, and they move faster through the company.”

But Sykes’s program doesn’t just enrich his own students; it also has a much broader impact, reaching classrooms as far away as Europe and Africa.

“I have a number of partner institutions that have incorporated the SMILE program,” Sykes explains. “We call it ‘Small Mobile Instruments for Laboratory Enhancement’ because they’re cheap, easy to make, and you can have multiple copies—compared to a commercial instrument, which costs maybe a hundred times more. Our goal is to provide these instruments to institutions, either donating kits or providing the specs to make them.”

Through the SMILE program, Sykes has built and distributed a sizable set of instruments, including the following:

  • Fluorometers (for identifying and quantifying specific molecules in a medium by measuring fluorescence)—A standard teaching-grade instrument costs about $10,000; Sykes makes his for $50. Several universities and the British Geological Survey have built the instruments for instructional and research applications.
  • Colorimeters (for measuring absorbance of specific wavelengths of light to determine the concentration of compounds in solution)—“We’ve had students at Park Forest Middle School build these,” Sykes says, referring to a local school. “We also have a high school in Denmark that’s built them.”
  • Electrical conductivity meters (for measuring the conductivity of a solution)—“Penn State’s Center for Science and the Schools asked us to build conductivity meters so that they could take them over to Ghana as part of an environmental education program that they were running called REBUILD,” Sykes recalls. “We sent pre-built ones over there, but they also have the specs to continue to build them if they want.”
  • Cyclic voltammeters (for measuring electrochemical properties of a substance in solution)—“A commercial instrument is about $15,000; this costs less than $50 to make. The stated cost does not include the electrodes, which can cost anywhere from $50 to $200, depending on the composition of the electrode material,” Sykes says. “There are probably eight institutions, many of them Big Ten schools, who we’ve given the specs to and they are now using them in their instructional labs.”

Sykes’s students have built a number of other instruments, as well, including barcode scanners, spectrophotometers (like colorimeters, but more sophisticated), nuclear magnetic resonance probes (for molecular characterization and identification), Karl Fischer titrators (for determining trace amounts of water in a sample), and electrostatic lifters (used to “lift” fingerprints or footprints from dusty crime scenes; one of these devices was recently donated to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Forensic Laboratory Services).

To boot, Sykes has managed to accomplish all of this on a shoestring.

“I do it based just on my operating budget,” he says. “To kick-start this, 10 years ago, the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence gave me two $10,000 grants to get my base supplies. But once I had all that, I’ve just used my operating budget each year—$8,000 for two instrumental courses—and I do that to show that it’s sustainable.”

Oftentimes, Sykes explains, external agencies will fund a program like his; but when the funding dries up, so does the initiative, because neither the department nor the professor has the money to sustain it.

“I can sustain this program—even donating instruments or kits—on $8,000 a year,” he says. “That also includes the normal operating costs of running two 400-level instructional laboratories—chemicals, supplies and equipment, instrument maintenance—and we think that’s pretty impressive. This is a sustainable project that anybody could introduce and use.”

Thanks, in part, to that sustainability, Sykes and his SMILE program are helping to improve the education of future scientists around the world—and they are notably enhancing the career prospects of the undergraduates he teaches at Penn State.

“The big thing of it is, you don’t want just any jobs for your students,” he says. “You want the best jobs.”

By Seth Palmer

Dan Sykes is the associate head for undergraduate education and the director of the analytical instructional laboratories in the Department of Chemistry at Penn State. He is also a co-founder of Penn State’s Forensic Science program in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.