Integrated projects prepare students to solve real-world problems

By Rob O'Connor '95
Managing Editor

How do students learn to solve real-world problems? For Dr. Courtney Hatch '00, it involves independent but integrated research focused on a common goal.

"In science, no one person can solve big problems alone," said Hatch, an assistant professor of chemistry, whose courses include Chemistry of the Environment, Environmental Analysis, and Advanced Analytical Chemistry. She also supervises the Advanced Techniques in Experimental Chemistry lab.

Since joining the chemistry faculty of her alma mater in 2008, she has guided a student research program, supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, which pairs students with various scientific interests to tackle a larger problem.

"Multidisciplinary integrated research ... That's the approach I'm taking," Hatch said.

Each student "owns" a research project based on their disciplinary interest, but the projects are interrelated. While individual projects are carried out independently, students meet weekly to discuss the implications of their research on the common question.

"Students have a chance to talk about their research with each other so that aspects of one research project may help them understand another project," she said. "They own their own projects so they feel ownership and take responsibility for their research, but there is a feeling of community. ... It not only shows they can work together to understand the big picture but that their knowledge isn't limited by their discipline and their work alone."

One of her current students, McKenzie Keller '13, was one of six Hendrix students awarded a Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) grant this fall from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. Keller, a chemistry major from Rogers, Ark., will study the impacts of atmospheric mineral aerosol heterogeneous chemistry on phytoplankton growth rates.

Hatch is no stranger to the style of student research she oversees at Hendrix.

After earning her doctorate at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she studied the chemistry of mineral dust aerosol in the atmosphere and its impacts on atmospheric chemistry and climate, she accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Iowa. While her research on atmospheric mineral dust continued in Iowa City, she also promoted collaboration and networking between medical researchers and the chemistry department to initiate a multidisciplinary collaboration to study the effects of nanoaerosols on human health.

"These days in chemistry, you can't do anything alone," she said. "Being able to communicate across boundaries is so critical."

Sharing research results beyond campus is a natural extension of the enterprise, too. Hatch requires all of her students to present their research at the American Chemical Society (ACS) national meeting.

"It doesn't make a difference if it doesn't get out," said Hatch.

As a Hendrix student, Hatch did independent research with her future colleague Dr. Tom Goodwin and attended two national ACS conferences with faculty members and a group of approximately eight students.

As a faculty member, she accompanied 24 chemistry students last spring to a national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, Calif.

This spring, she will accompany 28 students to the meeting in San Diego, Calif.