For chemistry students and undergraduate researchers Taylor Barrett, Chelsea Weidman, Stephanie Beach and Lauren Heese, graduation will be bittersweet.
The four seniors entered RIT’s chemistry program together as freshmen and quickly became inseparable friends after meeting in professor Hans Schmitthenner’s research lab, which opened in 2012.
“My entire college experience has been as a part of this group,” said Beach. “We all grew together through the chemistry program and our research. We really are like a family.”
Under Schmitthenner’s direction, the students conducted groundbreaking research on targeted molecular imaging agents over the past three years. The technology allows medical professionals to easily distinguish cancerous cells from healthy cells and has applications in virtually every stage of cancer treatment, including early detection, diagnosis, surgery and recurrence checks. Earlier this year, the researchers won a $440,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health for the development of a photoacoustic imaging component in collaboration with the University of Rochester. Schmitthenner, Barrett, Weidman and Beach have also filed for a patent.
“It’s never been just about the research with Dr. Hans — he mentored and shaped us as scientists,” said Weidman.
Schmitthenner, who joined RIT’s faculty in 2010, credits Barrett, Weidman, Beach and Heese with the success of his lab and research. Without their dedication and hard work, Schmitthenner doubts that his lab would have earned any of its recent accolades. To Schmitthenner, the relationship between himself and his students was a partnership.
“In chemistry there is the thrill of the chase, the utter dismay of reactions not working, and then the elation of capturing the target compound,” said Schmitthenner. “It's tough to beat that feeling, and they’ve all experienced that now.”
After May, each student will forge her own path. All four women are aiming to ultimately earn doctorate degrees in their respective fields.
Barrett, a chemistry major from Middletown, Pa., is considering programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Washington. After earning her Ph.D., Barrett desires to open her own lab or help create science policy.
The group’s other chemistry major, Beach, was accepted by Boston University. Although she hails from Douglasville, Pa., Beach has always wanted to live in Boston.
Weidman, a biochemistry major from Eastampton, N.J., is currently applying to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Baltimore. She has already been accepted by Boston College but is waiting to hear back from the other schools before making her final decision.
Due to switching majors from biochemistry to biotechnology, Heese has an additional year of studies to complete at RIT. However, the Latrobe, Pa., native also plans to attend graduate school after graduating next spring.
Although they will no longer be working together at RIT, Schmitthenner and his former students hope to stay in touch.
“I can’t wait to hear about what they accomplish,” said Schmitthenner.
Schmitthenner’s research lab, meanwhile, will continue to build on the foundation that Barrett, Weidman, Beach and Heese laid out.
“We have very promising students coming right along behind them, ready to step into the driver’s seat,” said Schmitthenner. “They’ve played a large part in mentoring these students and have become role models whether they know it or not.”