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Department of Chemistry
Message from the Department Head
bevilacqua

Welcome to the Department of Chemistry at Penn State!

Our department offers a rich variety of opportunities and resources. Since the heart of every department is its students, let’s begin by exploring our graduate and undergraduate programs.

Our graduate program provides opportunities to students in a wide array of chemical disciplines including analytical, biological, environmental, inorganic, materials, organic, physical, and theoretical chemistry. Graduate students have the freedom to personalize their courses and research projects. Moreover, we encourage graduate students to rotate in several different labs and we provide an opportunity to come to the department the summer before classes begin. Our graduate students have an active Chemistry Graduate Student Association and also have many opportunities for professional development, including teaching, communication, networking, outreach, and participation in regional, national, and international meetings. They are also part of departmental committees such as safety, seminars, and climate and diversity. These activities, together with research, make our students competitive for many career paths that include academia, industry, government, and national laboratories, among others.

Our undergraduate program offers an innovative curriculum that provides students with outstanding training for a variety of career paths including careers in the chemical industry, academia, medicine, education, and government, as well as other fields. We offer customized academic planning, advising, and research opportunities. The latter is especially important; students have the chance to work with faculty on cutting edge problems and gain skills that transfer to professional development, as well as co-author papers with faculty. A wide variety of scholarships, co-ops, and internships are also available. 

Our large and diverse faculty are involved in world-class research, are leaders in their fields, and have won numerous awards for their scientific contributions. We explore topics that range from climate change to DNA repair to new materials for alternative energy. Faculty are funded by the NIH, NSF, DOE, NASA, Army, and many other agencies. In addition, many of our faculty members have received prestigious awards including the PECASE, Humboldt Prize, NIH MIRA, NSF CAREER, and Packard Fellowship, among others. Several of our faculty members have been elected as fellows and members of prestigious academies and societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Association of Arts and Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Our faculty also serve as journal editors, meeting organizers, and are involved in outreach initiatives in the community. The faculty are also engaged in outstanding teaching efforts to bring innovative teaching methods to the classroom, including active learning and flipped classrooms. Many of the faculty have participated in workshops to learn new and innovative teaching methods. 

We are also fortunate in the department to have an outstanding staff. Our talented staff members provide assistance to the students and faculty in areas of undergraduate teaching, graduate student recruiting, postdoctoral appointments, faculty recruiting, budgeting, and so much more. 

We welcome you to our website and invite you to explore these and many other aspects of our department. Please look at the news and events pages to see the latest stories and opportunities. I think you will find the Department of Chemistry at Penn State to be an exceptionally exciting, welcoming, and inclusive  place and we hope that you can visit and explore the many opportunities here.

With very best wishes,

Phil Bevilacqua

Head, Department of Chemistry

Email: pcb5@psu.edu

Phone: 814-863-3812

From the Department Head

Dear Chemistry Colleagues,

It is the start of a new year, indeed a new decade.  I get reflective this time of year. I pause to think about what I’ve done (and not done) and about what I value.  During the first group meeting of the year, I give what I call the “State of the Group” address. I go over the obvious: papers, grants, teaching, travel, change in personnel and the like.  But this year, I went back—way, way back—and looked at the students who went through my lab over the last decade. Sixteen students earned their PhD in the Bevilacqua Lab during this time. They’ve gone on to positions in academia, industry, and government.  And, as I thought about this, I realized not only how proud I am of what we achieved together, but how fond I am of them. I realized that what is of real value in my job as a faculty member is my students. When my head gets crowded with too many thoughts and I feel I have too much to do, I escape to my group.  A few hours in the lab, or having lunch with my students, clears my head and reminds me of why I took this job.  

When I was in high school, I played on the golf team, and we had what we called our “swing thought”—the one thing to think of when you stand over the ball and get ready to hit it.  Well, my swing thought as a faculty member is to take care of my students. If they are doing well and succeeding, then I’m doing well and succeeding. If they are writing impactful papers, then I’m writing impactful papers.  If they are developing as individuals, then I am growing myself.  

Now that I am department head, the department is my other group and I want to see this group thrive too.  This includes our graduate students, postdocs, undergraduates, and our staff. I think in the end, when we step away from our jobs, we will remember the impact we’ve had on other people.  So this year, let’s make a little extra time for our research groups, for our students in the classroom, and for our staff. I found this Penn State article about kindness in the work environment quite interesting, “A little kindness goes a long way for worker performance and health.”  The examples we set, the assistance we give, and the inspiration we provide will be the greatest gifts any of us can give in the new year and the new decade.

With Best Wishes,
Phil

Dear Chemistry Colleagues,

Since a very young age, I’ve been interested in creativity.  When I was a kid, I listened to music all the time, and over the years I’ve accumulated quite a record and CD collection.  I love going to art museums when I travel, and I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry and good books. But more than any one piece of music, art, or writing, I’ve been fascinated with the creative process.  

When I began to pursue science in earnest—probably in my first year or two of graduate school—I didn’t understand that scientists could themselves be creative, let alone that I could be creative.  No one seemed to talk about creativity, and, frankly, not many of us do today.  When I think about this, I’m reminded of Einstein’s quote on creativity, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”  It’s probably not for me to argue with a towering genius, but I flat out disagree with Professor Einstein on this one.   

I find creativity in the oddest of places—watching a movie, going for a run, talking science with a student, reading a review article, or writing a paper or a grant proposal.  But I never know when a new idea will come. In fact, if you put me on the spot and said “Come up with a good idea now!” I would likely freeze up and fail.  I’m also painfully aware that most of my ideas are wrong.  Years ago, Dudley Herschbach—the Nobel Laureate Chemist from Harvard—came to Penn State and gave the education seminar.  I remember him saying that what he loved about research is that you could be wrong 95% of the time and still be a success.  That resonated with me; and, I suppose, that’s why I never became a physician.

My PhD advisor Doug Turner used to say, “Knowledge is like a tunnel—it’s easy to get to the end but it’s hard to make it longer.” Thirty years later, I can testify that Doug was absolutely right, and many publications later I can also state that the process of creating new knowledge hasn’t gotten any easier.  I have a bootleg collection from Bob Dylan’s classic album Blood on the Tracks.  It is fascinating to listen to the 10 takes of "Tangled up in Blue" (OK I’m a little bit obsessive) because you see that even for a musical genius, the creative process is an ugly one.  There are less than stellar versions, early lyrics don’t work, and there are halting starts and stops. Writing a paper in my lab is a lot like this.  It’s a disorienting process, one where we are never quite sure what the final product will look like. James Taylor said this about songwriting, “It’s a thrill and a source of deep frustration.”  Creating new knowledge is the same.  So, to the graduate students, remember that creating new knowledge, the ultimate goal of your PhD, is not easy, it’s often not pretty, and it can be deeply frustrating.  But for those times when it all comes together, it really is the best of feelings.  

This month we celebrate creative contributions of faculty, staff, and students.  I admire all that they have achieved and feel very fortunate to be part of such a strong and creative department. 

Best Wishes,

Phil

Dear Chemistry Colleagues,

One of the most humbling and eye-opening events in my professional life happened about five years ago.  Our polyacrylamide gel images started getting blurry.  It happened to one student and then it stopped.  Then it happened to another and then it stopped.  And then it would come and go, happening to different people on different days.  Intermittent problems can drive a scientist nuts.  We had entire group meetings on this.  I held impromptu meetings in the hallway, in my office, and in the lab.  I would join the group for lunch and they would be debating the blurry gels.  Gel quality is critical to everything we do—assaying RNA kinetics, sequencing, and structure mapping.  There were tears and some of them were mine.  Theories abounded. The acrylamide was old, there wasn’t enough polymerizer, certain gel plates were better than others, we needed new spacers, the gel didn’t polymerize long enough, the gel wasn’t pre-run long enough, or the vacuum on the gel dryer was leaking.  We replaced every one of these things, borrowed reagents, and even dried gels in other labs.  Just when one of us thought we had it figured out, the problem would rear its ugly head again.  My group was literally in despair and I was too.  This problem plagued us for six months, and it is no exaggeration to say that our collective nerves were shattered.

Then, one day, my colleague Paul said that his lab, which was having a similar problem, fixed it by putting the same dried gel in a different cassette.  That was all the hint we needed.  Within ten minutes, we had the problem figured out: the spongy material in the bottom half of the cassette had worn down over the years, and the gel was no longer flush against the imaging plate on the top.  This was causing the radiation in the gel to spread out before hitting the imaging plate.  The problem of the blurry gel had been solved!  We were able to fix that problem by purchasing a new foam board at Michael’s, and we repaired all ten of our cassettes in a few hours for under twenty dollars.  This was such a cathartic experience that we wrote a short methods article on it in a single day—you can find it on my group website, “Eliminating blurry bands in gels with a simple cost-effective repair to the gel cassette”.  Five years later, the problem remains solved.  Later that weekend, the lyrics from a Rod Stewart song came to me, “Look how wrong you can be.”  So much time.  So many theories.  Every one of them, and every one of us, dead wrong.

Here we are in the time of Coronavirus and we have to remember how wrong each of us can be.  We can’t let our guard down or think we are in control of the situation.  Moreover, in the same way that the smallest of clues from another lab immediately allowed us to solve the blurry gel problem, teamwork can lead to breakthroughs on the COVID-19 problem.  In the last week, I’ve talked with Paul Cremer, Jean Paul Armache, and Howard Salis about COVID-19 research problems in their labs.  I don’t know if it will make a difference, but now is a time for all of us to help each other.  Who knows when the next hint might break the dam that is preventing a solution.

Walt Whitman wrote, “All truths wait in all things.  They neither hasten their own delivery, nor resist it.”  How true.  How simple.  How Zen.  Our blurry gels had truth waiting inside of them.  Although some days it seemed like the truth resisted its delivery, that’s neither true nor possible.  Likewise, the cure for coronavirus waits.  It cannot resist its delivery, especially if we approach it with humility and teamwork.

With Warm Wishes,
Phil

Dear Chemistry Colleagues,

Getting our ducks in a row, avoiding surprises, being absolutely sure.  These aren’t such bad things. I don’t want to run out of gas on a long road trip.  I don’t want to show up at the hotel for a seminar trip and find I’ve forgotten my shoes (yes, it happened).  And I don’t want my students to run out of lab supplies. Being sure, being secure, being confident. Much of the time, these are good things.

But, I also like not being fully in control.  Not knowing how an experiment will turn out is a thrill.  I can remember as a graduate student standing in the dark room and taking the film out of the developer and squinting, trying to make out the bands from my kinetics experiments.  My heart raced as I got those first glimpses. I miss that, now that I’m older and away from the bench. But I see and embrace uncertainty in other ways in my professional life. Not knowing if a paper will be accepted or if a proposal will be funded.  Not knowing whether we will land a faculty candidate. These are uncertainties that come with the job, and being a PI and a department head involves risk taking. I guess I’ve always enjoyed some element of uncertainty in my daily life as well. Going fly fishing or birdwatching provides no guarantees, and I like that about them.  Being a graduate student also involves risk taking.  

As advisors, PIs are granted the responsibility of being good stewards of the resources provided to us.  We assist our students in handling the uncertainty that is woven into the fabric of getting a PhD. Unlike medical school, for a PhD there is no clear path and no exact timetable.  Yet, we form a bond with our students and we help them in making adjustments to a not so perfect experiment or a slightly off calculation, to guide them back between the lines and on the path to the finish line.  

A polished research talk is enjoyable and enriching, but it also tinged with a bit of fraud.  Most talks give the illusion that it is a straight line from hypothesis to published paper, but we all know the line is crooked.  Indeed, a gift we give our students is helping them understand and embrace the crooked line: not only understanding why the right answer is right, but also understanding why the (hundred) wrong answer(s) are wrong.  Einstein said it beautifully, “We not only want to know how nature is, but we also want to reach, if possible, a goal which may seem utopian and presumptuous, namely to know why nature is such and not otherwise.”

When I was a postdoc I used to wear a t-shirt that said “Dare to be naive”, which is attributed to Buckminster Fuller.  My mother, a non-scientist, gave it to me because she loved the saying.  But it used to drive by baymate nuts; it made no sense to her. What Buckminster was saying is that we need to be vulnerable to be creative. Interestingly, some of the greatest and most creative actors conjured up a sense of vulnerability.  I’ve heard it said that this is what made tough guy actor Marlon Brando so great. To do something new, we have to open ourselves up to being vulnerable, to being wrong. Brene Brown said that “Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.”  Creativity and innovation require us to be vulnerable and Bucky knew this.

A few weeks ago I shared a NYTimes essay entitled, “How to Stay Sane When the World Seems Crazy."  In this piece, there was a section on accepting uncertainty and abdicating security.  Perhaps now, more than ever, there is uncertainty in our lives. Questions abound, “When will we get back to work?” “Will my degree be delayed?” “Will my friends and family be OK?” “Will I be OK?” When I embrace uncertainty, these questions don’t necessarily get answered, but I take comfort in knowing that someday they will.  Getting a PhD requires a leap of faith by both the student and the PI, and it comes with the acceptance of uncertainty. But the product of that uncertainty can be innovative, advances that are a thrill.  Graduate students, if you find yourself anxious, especially these days, talk to your PI. We will help guide you through these times and work together to mitigate uncertainty and to achieve the creative output that we all desire.

With Warm Wishes,
Phil

Dear Chemistry Colleagues,
 

Let’s face it scientists, our public image isn’t always great.  The media often portrays us as mad scientists, on the fringe of society, and more than a little bit socially awkward. Take, for example, The Big Bang Theory, which I secretly love.  Truth be told, however, science is a social enterprise.  I was first exposed to this by Professor Tahdg Begley at Cornell, when interviewing for graduate school, back in 1987.  He invited me to one of his group meetings. I’ll never forget how he complimented his postdoc on conducting a particularly difficult experiment with an oxygen electrode, and how Tahdg included me like one of his own group members.  Tahdg was smiling and laughing, and he was intense all at the same time. Even though I didn’t end up working with him or even going to Cornell, his enthusiasm was infectious. He showed me, for the first time, that scientists could take great joy in their work and that they could show empathy.

I ended up working with Professor Doug Turner at the University of Rochester, who was like Tahdg in many ways.  He took great pleasure in regaling us with stories and in making us smile. What he was doing, which I was too young and too naive to realize at the time, was showing us his love and inspiring us to work.  He also taught me the importance of human interactions. Doug introduced me to many scientists in the field. He helped me overcome my shy nature to establish relationships with both young and senior scientists in the field, many of whom I know to this day.  One memory is Doug bringing a few of us to lunch with the late Harvard Professor Jeremy Knowles. Jeremy was brilliant, impeccably dressed, and had a charming British accent; in other words, he scared the hell out of me. But Jeremy was a lovely man; he immediately disarmed me and put me at ease. This taught me the importance of being approachable and paying it forward.

I would postdoc for Tom Cech, who had a powerful, but altogether different, personality.  When I was around Tom I felt like he was listening to me 100 times better than I could ever listen to another person.  What impressed me most about Tom was that he was equally at ease with politicians, scientists, and little children. And he loved to talk.  There wasn’t much e-mail going on in those days, just loads of conversation. He taught me that it was okay, indeed necessary, to engage everyone in your life.

I’m thinking about important people in my life right now because, like you, I’m house-bound.  My days are split between writing papers, answering emails, and talking to my group. When I see them up on my computer screen, arranged like the Brady Bunch, something primal makes me want to be there with them.  (Not all the time mind you, but a lot of the time!)  Scientists are social beings. Our creativity peaks when we bounce ideas off each other.  These days will pass. We will again be having ice cream socials, fall receptions, and seminars.  Until I can greet you in person, with a smile and a handshake, take care of yourselves and of each other. 

With Warm Wishes,
Phil