Face to Face: A Mentor for Women Scientists

image: C. DunlapA Mentor for Women Scientists

Spend some time with chemistry professor Christopher Dunlap in Science Hall, and you'll be energized by his enthusiasm about teaching at Saint Mary's. “Over the course of four years, our science majors undergo a metamorphosis from student to professional peer,” says Dunlap. “It’s the result of classroom learning but also, the unique experience of doing faculty-guided research at the undergraduate level.”

At Saint Mary’s undergrads use lab equipment that, at larger schools, might only be accessible to graduate students. “That’s one of the great things about being at a small school—you actually get to put your fingers on the instrumentation,” says Dunlap. Chemistry majors develop the skills and confidence to do applied research using a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, a high-performance liquid chromatograph, and more. By senior year, Dunlap says, “I can give them an assignment and say, ‘Off you go!’ They make mistakes, but sometimes they find interesting things when they make those mistakes.”

Whether they’re interested in soil chemistry, nanotechnology, or organic synthesis, both students and faculty are passionate about research. They’re also proud that the College’s chemistry and biochemistry programs are approved by the American Chemical Society (ACS), a status that indicates a top-notch curriculum, lab facilities, and faculty.

Students at women’s colleges are more likely to choose science careers. The Saint Mary’s chemistry and physics department brims with female role models, but male professors like Dunlap are equally strong advocates for their students. “At Saint Mary’s, being a woman scientist is not unusual,” he says. Dunlap worked closely with Ardis Copenhaver, a 2007 graduate, on environmental chemistry research. The experience helped her gain acceptance to PhD programs around the country. It also influenced Dunlap to develop a new course, refocus his own sabbatical research, and explore—with the biology department—the creation of an interdisciplinary environmental studies program at the College.

It’s not just the students who benefit from research,” says Dunlap. “Every time I collaborate with a student, I am reminded why science was such a draw for me. Working with someone who understands the project and can see it with a different set of eyes is important to our progress. And when things work and we learn something new, that’s the best feeling.”