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Connecting to Student Success through Chemistry

January 9, 2020 | By Heewon Kim

01092020-Schwab-1.jpgSarah Schwab at work in the lab. Photo courtesy of Sarah Schwab

During the summer of 2017, a freshman at Mira Costa College, unsure that higher education was for her, participated in a National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program at UC San Diego, called Chemistry Connections for Community College Students (4Cs). Two and a half years later, Sarah Schwab is a third-year undergraduate studying chemistry at the nationally ranked university. Her advice to other students: “Never give up.”

From almost not pursuing college education after high school to now striving toward the highest level of postsecondary education, Schwab’s story exemplifies this advice. She recounts that in high school she did not enjoy education. She took a break from school after graduation and pursued competitive surfing and ocean lifeguarding. She believed she was not fit for school, but when her friend gave her advice on the importance of higher education, she decided to give it one more chance. Looking back now, Schwab said that she is more than glad to have not given up and astonished to see herself at UC San Diego as an aspiring chemist.

Schwab now confidently works toward her dream of one day getting her PhD in a chemistry lab. Through the 4Cs/REU program, created by Stacey Brydges and Haim Weizman in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, she was able to find the intersection of her different interests in chemistry and medicine. Combining her high school experience of working in a hospital and as an EMT, she has developed a passion for analytical techniques in medicine.

For students like Schwab, who attend two-year colleges within commuting distance of UC San Diego, REUs, like the 4Cs, offer an intensive and integrated early undergraduate research experience in the chemical sciences. According to the undergraduate “superstar,” as her research colleagues call her, the REU provided Schwab with exposure to research experience at UC San Diego, while introducing her to a group of faculty mentors and supporters. Additionally, Schwab said that working beside fellow students gave her a community that outlasts the program.

01092020-Schwab-2.jpgStudent gathering on campus. Schwab is pictured next to Professor Stacey Brydges in the front row from left. Photo courtesy of Sarah Schwab

According to Vicki Grassian, chair of the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Schwab is an outstanding student who has made great strides in her research. “As an undergraduate researcher in the Grassian Research Laboratory since Summer 2017, Sarah has developed and applied the technique of Atomic Force Microscopy coupled to Infrared Spectroscopy for the study of complex surfaces and interfaces that play a role in air quality,” said Grassian. “She is currently a co-author on one publication and it is anticipated she will be a co-author on an additional one or more before she graduates from UC San Diego.”   

Schwab, who is also a recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship, which covers both her undergraduate and future graduate school expenses, explained that she found out about the REU program through her colleagues and faculty at Mira Costa College. Coming into community college, she said that she was interested in art and English literature, but after taking chemistry courses, two of her professors told her that she had potential in the chemistry field. With strong recommendations from friends who had previously participated in the program, and from her organic chemistry professor, who was a PhD student at UC San Diego, Schwab decided to apply to the REU program. Through it, she said that she gained exposure to UC San Diego student life, which helped smooth the transition to her current undergraduate life on campus.

01092020-Schwab-Grassian.jpgSarah Schwab with Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Vicki Grassian. Photo courtesy of Sarah Schwab

“My cohort and I were able to debunk some myths we previously had about UCSD students, now as UCSD students ourselves,” she said, adding that community college students hold many expectations of UCSD students, like they are unapproachable because they seem studious and smart.

Living the reality of being a UC San Diego student has been positive for Schwab. 

“It was a good experience to know that striving for academic achievements in such a competitive setting like UCSD was not an impossible dream,” she said.

The NSF’s REU program provides educational opportunities for undergraduate students and indirect funding for participation in research. While 4Cs/REU currently is not active at UC San Diego, Brydges leads other cutting-edge chemistry education programs for the department, which has one of the top 20 graduate programs in the country.