Imagine that you’re a chemistry or biochemistry student who has just finished their first year of college. While you made it through with an average GPA, you’re just not sure if the major, or perhaps even the college, is the right fit for you. But you’ve only really had experience in the classroom, and you don’t yet know many people in the department. Is it time to choose a new path, or is there another way to find out if there’s a future for you in the program?
In summer 2023, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics hosted its first program designed specifically for students who might be feeling a little unsure about their place in the major.
“We noticed that a lot of students were leaving the major or even dropping out between their first and second year, so we wanted to create an opportunity for these students to see what it’s really like to be a scientist, working in a research lab and applying what they’ve learned to answer scientific questions,” says Nicholas Salzameda, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Traditionally, students don’t work in the research labs until their second-to-last year, but we thought getting them into the lab earlier would be a great way to build their confidence and give them a greater sense of community.”
“Capturing these students early, getting them into the lab, and connecting them with other students who understand what they’re going through makes them more likely to persist in their major.”
Nicholas Salzameda, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Last summer, the department selected eight students for the eight-week summer lab experience under the mentorship of a faculty member, which also provided a chance to network with more experienced peers in their majors. Participants also attended three gatherings during the summer, where they got the opportunity to meet other faculty and students from chemistry and biochemistry and other departments.
“Capturing these students early, getting them into the lab, and connecting them with other students who understand what they’re going through makes them more likely to persist in their major,” Salzameda says.
At the close of the summer session, these students were welcome to stay in their research labs for the following academic year or could choose to delay future lab experiences among their other responsibilities. The students who participated were paid for their time in the research lab during the summer, a significant benefit as many CSUF students have to work as they attend school. One hundred percent of the participating students enrolled in chemistry classes this fall.
“Many students don’t know what a career in research is all about and that they can get paid for doing that kind of work, so this also opens their eyes to potential job opportunities,” Salzameda says. “One student in my lab said it was a great experience, both to learn what research is like and to meet other students in science facing challenges and issues similar to hers. She feels like she now has a home and a research family here.”
Next summer, the department hopes to open the program to additional students. Salzameda says the department has received a lot of support from Dean Marie Johnson and has also been crowdfunding for the program through the fall semester.
“At CSUF, we want to make sure students are exposed to the best, most up-to-date curriculum and also gain valuable hands-on skills in the lab,” he says. “Getting students involved earlier means they’ll get more out of their research experiences, including ultimately contributing to publications and conference presentations.”