Chemistry travel grant sends students around the world

By Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry
Monday, Nov. 3, 2014

This year 35 chemistry graduate students traveled to scientific conferences across the globe with the help of a new departmental grant. Established last year, the grant reimburses travel expenses up to $1,000 once for all graduate students who have completed their general examinations.

“The travel grant enabled us to think about going to conferences we never would have considered,” said Valerie Shurtleff, a fourth year graduate student in the laboratory of David MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and department chair.

From left to right: Andrew Capacci, Jack Terrett, Eric Welin and Valerie Shurtleff

​Shurtleff used the grant to travel to Shanghai, China for the International Symposia on Advances in Chemical Science: Challenges in Organic Chemistry earlier this fall. “It broadens your cultural view of the world, and I found it personally very fulfilling,” she said.

The grant also empowers students’ professional development. Constructing a cohesive story from volumes of experimental data helps students keep perspective on their project. Speaking with other researchers at conferences who express excitement at the work is reinvigorating, Shurtleff said.

For Travis Shaw, a fifth year student in the laboratory of Professor Andrew Bocarsly, the best part of the experience was sharing his research with other researchers who were highly engaged. Shaw made his first visit to Asia to attend a Gordon Conference on Green Chemistry in Hong Kong. At a poster session, he recalled receiving substantive and helpful critiques of his research.

Giving research talks at conferences gives students a valuable opportunity to practice speaking in front of new audiences. “The ability to present information well and think about it from someone else’s perspective is a vital component to working in industry,” said Nyssa Crompton, a Princeton graduate alumna and scientist at Johnson & Johnson’s Morris Plains, NJ site, who first proposed the travel grant.

As a joint geosciences and chemistry graduate student in the laboratory of Satish Myneni, an Associate Professor of Geosciences, Crompton was aware of a travel grant for geosciences students and began advocating for the same opportunity to be afforded to chemistry graduate students.

During her tenure as the chemistry Graduate Student Organization (GSO) president, Crompton proposed the travel grant idea to the Graduate Work Committee, a panel of chemistry faculty designated to hear students’ thoughts and concerns. The faculty recognized the merit of investing in students’ scientific development through conferences and within a few months, approved the grant.

Since the beginning of the calendar year, students from all chemistry divisions have used the grant to travel to 22 conferences in eight different countries.

Stephen Bandini at a group activity during BioEl2014: International Winterschool on Bioelectronics in Kirchberg, Austria

Stephen Bandini, a material chemistry graduate student in the laboratory of Jeffrey Schwartz, traveled to Kirchberg, Austria to attend a bioelectronics conference in February of this year. During the week long conference, the attendees learned about each other’s research at presentations, poster sessions and shared meals. Through these in-depth conversations, Bandini was able to set up a research collaboration with a fellow conference attendee.

Whether held outside or within the US, conferences offer unique opportunities to network with researchers outside your specialized research area and can strengthen ties in the scientific community. Many meetings, such as the American Chemical Society National Meetings, provide specific career development resources that help students find their ideal career path.

In its inaugural year, many students have already benefitted greatly from the travel grant and the chemistry department plans to renew the grant for years to come.

“Going to conferences was one of the highlights of my experience at Princeton,” Crompton said. “I wanted other students to be able to share in that experience.”