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McNeese Chemistry department plays pivotal role

McNeese Chemistry department plays pivotal role

Chemistry professor prepares hair samples for microscopic research.
Richard Donahoe, coordinator of the forensic chemistry program in the McNeese Department of Chemistry, prepares hair samples to be placed in the comparison microscope for his Orientation to Forensics class in the recently refurbished $300,000 state-of-the-art forensic chemistry lab in Kirkman Hall. McNeese's chemistry department was the first state university to offer a forensics concentration and currently about 50 percent of the chemistry students are majoring in this area.


This year marks the International Year of Chemistry, with the theme of "Chemistry-our life, our future."

According to Dr. Ron Darbeau, head of McNeese State University's Department of Chemistry, his department "plays a pivotal role in increasing interest in chemical phenomena among young people and in providing the Lake Area with access to an excellent chemistry program featuring high quality faculty and infrastructure and in producing top-notch, versatile graduates."

The McNeese Chemistry Department is approved by the American Chemical Society and actively involved in the education of future chemistry professionals (chemists, forensic scientists, chemistry teachers), medical practitioners (doctors, pharmacists, dentists), faculty research and community service-learning programs, as well as the cultivation of understanding and appreciation of chemistry to students in the non-science disciplines.

The department offers a chemistry degree with concentrations in biochemistry, premedicine and forensic chemistry, and right now, forensic chemistry and biochemistry are "hot." According to Darbeau, McNeese's chemistry department was the first state university to offer a forensics concentration and currently about 50 percent of the chemistry students are in this area.

"This fall, we unveiled our recently refurbished $300,000 state-of-the-art forensic chemistry lab," said Darbeau. "The lab boasts some $500,000 of state-of-the-art forensic instrumentation, most of which was funded through a grant from McNeese's Technology Advancement Student Committee."

The department collaborates with the Southwest Louisiana Crime Lab, in "a win-win situation partnership," said Richard Donahoe, coordinator of the forensic chemistry program. "Our students receive hands-on training from the professionals, who often employ these students after they graduate," he said. Personnel from the lab are involved in calibrating the program and have agreed to team teach an Applied Forensic Chemistry course next fall.

Darbeau is also excited about a Nov. 4 event that the department will host to draw together the Lake Area chemical community, including industry representatives and faculty, counselors and students at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, for "an enriching evening of discussion on the status, role and future of the chemistry enterprise both locally and globally." This event was made possible through an ACS Innovative Grants Award recently received by Darbeau.

The integration of both teaching and research is a key component to the success of McNeese's chemistry program, according to Darbeau. All chemistry majors are required to conduct research under the tutelage of a faculty member. Students and their mentors conduct cutting-edge research on areas including alligator immunology (that might lead to new broad-spectrum antibiotics), natural products (isolating and identifying COX-inhibitors and treatments for diabetes and cancer from plants native to Louisiana), phytoremediation (the use of plants to extract toxins from soils in Southwest Louisiana) and development of nanoparticles, gold clusters and the novel class of "magnetic superhalogens," which could herald the advent of a new 3-dimensional periodic table of elements.

"Many of our students have been accepted into nationally prestigious research programs either as graduate students or as summer interns, and a great many have gone on to doctoral programs, medical and other professional schools," he said.
Service-learning is another integral part of the department. "We have several service-learning programs targeting students in elementary, middle and high schools," said Darbeau. "This is the best age to awaken and inspire minds, when the world still holds wonder. It is our responsibility to be a part of this process of educating our youth about science."

Each year, during National Chemistry Week, the McNeese chemistry department participates in the Chem Expo at the Lake Charles Civic Center. This year the event is scheduled for Oct. 27. McNeese students and faculty join with more than 600 volunteers from the Lake Area Industrial Alliance and the Southwest Louisiana section of ACS to showcase chemistry and some of its applications to more than 2,500 6th graders from Calcasieu and Cameron parishes.

Chemistry faculty members have been active participants in the Board of Regents' Speaking of Science initiative since its inception four years ago. "Dr. Mark Merchant, Dr. Omar Christian and I have crisscrossed the state promoting science to students in grades 6-12," said Darbeau. "We present at least 10 programs a year and the students really enjoy it and learn a lot from the experience."
In April 2009, Darbeau assisted Louisiana's first lady Supriya Jindal in science demonstrations at Fort Polk North Elementary School.  "One of the teachers called me later and asked if McNeese would come back and put on a chemistry show at Fort Polk during its annual Science Night and I agreed," he said.

The chemistry department hosts several summer research opportunities for promising high school chemistry students. These programs include the ACS/SWLA-ACS-sponsored Science Experience for the Economically Disadvantaged for high school juniors and seniors. This summer, two students from Washington Marion High School - Nikia Gloston, a senior, and Leath Rasheed, a junior, participated in the program. "These students gained valuable experience with cutting-edge techniques, wrote a comprehensive report and presented their research findings," said Dr. Christian, who coordinates the high school summer research programs.

For the past three years, the chemistry department has also collaborated with the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts in Natchitoches. "We were contacted to see if we could provide research opportunities during the summer for two to five of their students," said Christian.

Darbeau said the principal aim of both these programs is to introduce motivated high school scholars to current chemical research under the mentorship of college faculty with an emphasis on career development and encouraging students to pursue higher education and careers in chemistry and the natural sciences.

One of the more exciting service-learning programs involves a "crime caper" that takes place in a high school chemistry classroom. McNeese's chemistry department takes over one high school chemistry class for a day and over 30 McNeese students and faculty teach chemistry students how to track down a criminal "CSI-style" using such techniques as finger print analysis and wet chemical tests to catch the culprit. Paula McDonald, chemistry instructor and assistant department head, coordinates this project.

"We visit about six high schools a semester, said McDonald. "We hope these presentations excite these students about science and the career possibilities that are out there and choose McNeese to explore those possibilities."