Kaysi Lee came to Missouri S&T last fall with a passion for science that had been nurtured through the years by her female high school science teachers and by her parents. But when she arrived at S&T, she was surprised at how difficult she initially found her STEM coursework.
Lee continued to excel academically, but she wondered if the difficulty she experienced was due to the work itself, or if it came from feeling like she might not belong in the predominantly white, male institution. She had chosen S&T because of its strong STEM reputation, but she often found herself the only African American and sometimes the only female student in her STEM classes.
But later that semester, Lee’s academic experience drastically improved when she applied and was accepted into an experiential learning opportunity sponsored by S&T’s College of Arts, Sciences, and Business (CASB) – the First Year Research Experience (FYRE) program.
In the FYRE program, first-year and transfer students enrolled in a CASB academic major work one-on-one with a faculty mentor on a specific research project. The program immerses students in a hands-on research experience and helps them improve their critical thinking, communication and leadership skills. At the time Lee joined, 18 different research projects were available. And this year— for the second year in a row—the FYRE program has doubled in size.
As a freshman in chemistry, Lee began her FYRE work in spring 2018 as an apprentice researcher to Dr. Klaus Woelk, associate professor of chemistry, working in the lab alongside chemistry graduate student Ming Huang.
“One of the great benefits for students getting a degree from Missouri S&T is that we try to involve our students in research at the earliest time possible,” says Woelk. “And even more importantly, what we’re calling research is not repeating what others have already solved — it’s cutting edge and excitingly new.”
For her FYRE project, Lee, Woelk and Huang tested nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy for pH measurement as a replacement for measuring with traditional pH electrodes. The goal of their continuing research is to be able to determine the pH of an aqueous sample based on the NMR spectra and chemical shifts they observe without taking the sample out of the machine. If this can be done, the process would broaden the uses of NMR, and it ultimately could be used in a medical setting to test the pH of a patient’s blood or in various quality control settings for pharmaceuticals.
“In the FYRE program, I really learned what NMR labs do,” Lee says. “Once I did, I was able to apply the knowledge to my classwork, and my work improved. And once I understood where the equations came from, I was able to create better experiments.”
“When Dr. Woelk saw I had grasped the project, he encouraged me to make posters and oral presentations of our hypothesis and results at scientific conferences — like S&T’s Undergraduate Research Conference and at the Missouri Academy of Science, as well as the international Experimental Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Conference in Orlando,” says Lee. “I learned to assimilate everything I knew about our project and to be able to answer questions on the spot.”
“Those experiences helped me find my voice and build confidence,” Lee adds.
Lee’s participation in the FYRE program allowed her to progress into the Opportunities for Undergraduate Research Experiences (OURE) program, a more advanced experiential learning program that S&T offers every year. For her OURE project, Lee is expanding her work with pH and NMR and plans to submit her results with Huang for publication in the peer-reviewed journal, Magnetic Resonance in Chemistry.
Lee is grateful for her FYRE learning experience.
“It’s great that someone took me under their wing,” says Lee. “I’m learning where I want to go and
what working with pharmaceuticals would be like. Right now, I want to pursue a Ph.D. I want
to keep going … and it all started with FYRE.”