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A formula for success for student researchers

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​For the past two years, Mark Gianino and six other students in the pharmaceutical and laboratory science program at Southwestern College (SWC) in California have been exploring alternative ways of manufacturing sunflower-seed-size pH sensors used to diagnose acid reflux.
 
“I love the freedom we get to explore any area we choose,” said Mark Gianino, a recipient of an American Chemical Society scholarship.
 
The medical device company for whom the students are conducting the research are also happy.
 
“They are very bright students who come up with novel solutions,” said Jeffery Schipper, president and chief executive officer of Sierra Medical Technology Inc.
 
He added that he hopes the students’ research will lead to innovations that can help his small company keep up with physicians' growing demand for the sensors. 
 
The success partnership is exactly what officials hoped would be the result through a research grant from National Science Foundation (NSF).
 
Schipper said he found the SWC students are “a little more hands-on and down-to-earth” than the graduate students that the company has previously collaborated with on research and the high school and college students it has employed through cooperative and internship programs. The company also gets the research it needs without having to take on long-term employee costs and commitments.
 
Despite his willingness to work with students, Schipper said he was unaware of community colleges’ research capabilities until SWC chemistry professor David Brown called to ask if the company had a research question that he and his students could tackle.
 
Brown, who has served as the principal or co-principal investigator for three NSF grants, knew recipients of the NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II grants—such as Sierra Medical—could get supplemental NSF grants for research if they partnered with a minority-serving community college like SWC. Brown also serves as a mentor for MentorLinks, a program the American Association of Community Colleges manages with NSF support to help community college educators enhance technician education programs. 
 
Schipper subsequently applied for two supplements to his SBIR grant after learning that Brown—using an NSF Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement grant—had bought sophisticated equipment that could benefit his company in terms of research. He was also impressed that this wasn’t the first time SWC helped a company with research; Brown and his student had with worked with California-based Ondax, Inc., with support from SBIR Phase II supplemental grants.
 
Being proactive in finding research opportunities is critical, said Brown, who routinely searches the NSF database for grant opportunities, looking particularly for potential SBIR partners.
 
"The human capital development is beyond measure,” Brown said of the gains students make as research assistants.
 
Paid work paves the way
 
The NSF-SBIR grants enable Brown to pay students $10 an hour to work on the research, so they do not have to get other jobs. Community colleges students' need for gainful employment is often cited as one of the obstacles to getting more community college students involved in research. The SWC team agrees.
 
"If it weren't paid, I don't think I'd be able to dedicate as much time to this job," Gianino said.
 
During fall and spring semesters, Gianino works about eight hours a week in the lab. Last summer, he put in 20 to 30 hours per week.
 
Some of the "juicy projects" that Schipper asked Brown and his students to take on included finding a less-labor-intensive way to apply antimony on the electrode of pH sensors and improving the polymer coating on daylong sensors placed at the back of patients' throats.
 
"It's real, live stuff that we need done to ramp up production of our product," Schipper said.
 
The SWC students also tested an electrochemical process for plating antimony on to the sensor, and experimenting with alternative polymer coatings.
 
"With this, you don't know what the answers are," said Gianino, explaining that he prefers the possibility of finding something unexpected compared to the cookie-cutter-like assignments of lab classes.
 
The sensor research has also compelled Gianino and other students to use what they have learned in other subjects. When they figured out they could use algebra to determine the diameter of the electrode wire—which was too tiny for any of their instruments to measure—it was a watershed moment.
 
"Once you start working in the lab, you make all these connections," Gianino said.  
 
Presenting the research
 
The NSF-SBIR grants also provide funds for students and their instructors to attend conferences where they meet scientists and make presentations. Gianino presented SWC’s research for Sierra Medical and shared the students' perspective on research during the 2YC3 conference in 2009.  In addition, he and another SWC student participated in the student poster session at the American Chemical Society conference in March. And a student who worked on the Ondax project participated in a Council on Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill presentation in Washington, D.C. in 2008 (see sidebar). The entire team met with members of Congress and other government officials.
 
The travel opportunities fuel the transformations among students as they gain self-confidence and a sense of ownership over the research when they make discoveries, Brown said. Not every student pursues a research career, but the three students who worked on the Ondax project have either transferred to four-year science degree programs or work as lab technicians. All three were students of color. 
 
Gianino, who earned his associate degree last month, plans to transfer to a University of California campus and major in chemistry.
 
Brown also feels a sense of accomplishment through the project.
 
“I get to watch these scientists blossom," he said.
 
The projects also push him professionally, he said. The pH sensor research, for example, nudged him out of his comfort zone in physical chemistry to learn more electrochemistry. 
 

"There’s a great bit of refreshment in the opportunity to do research with students,” he said.          

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