How ACS Project SEED Inspires the Next Generation of Chemists

The ACS Project SEED summer research program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, opens new doors for economically disadvantaged students to experience what it’s like to be a chemist. Students entering their junior or senior year in high school get a rare opportunity to work alongside scientist-mentors on research projects in industrial, academic, and federal laboratories, discovering new career paths as they approach critical turning points in their lives.

Project SEED seeks to help participants develop new skills and abilities, improve their self-confidence, and help them to identify potential education and career pathways.

I interviewed Emily Pentzer, SEED Mentor and Frank Hovorka Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Case Western Reserve University, and Jaylen Williams, SEED Participant, to find out about their experiences in the program, what inspires them, and the research that led them to publish their findings with ACS Publications!

  • What first sparked your interest in science/chemistry?
    • Pentzer: I was always curious why or how things worked, and through one event in Girl Scouts, the person showing us how blue light can be used in dental work didn’t know how it worked, and when I kept asking “how” she finally just said “chemistry!” I then realized that chemistry can give me answers to questions I had.
    • Williams: Ever since I was young, I watched channels such as National Geographic Wild and Animal Planet in awe and amazement. I knew that studying and understanding wildlife would be something that I would want to do for the rest of my life. Ever since then, my dream as my future profession is to be a wildlife zoologist.
  • Is there someone who really inspires you?
    • Pentzer: Serena Williams is someone who really inspires me. She seems to balance so many demanding roles and is an excellent competitor while also being personable and kind.
    • Williams: Someone who really inspires me is my mother. She’s worked so hard to provide for my younger sister and I. Although things happen and mistakes are made in life; she’s taught me to move on and to grow individually as a person. She’s always put my younger sister and I before her, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Even when there is something that I don’t see because I may be too young and naive, she is always there to steer me onto the right path, and when I don’t listen to the advice that she gives me, I learn my lesson the hard way. She is the reason why I can be proud of the person that I am today.
  • Who has helped you along in your education/career to date?
    • Pentzer: I have been fortunate to have a lot of support throughout my upbringing and career. My parents were very supportive and accepting of my inquisitive nature.
    • Williams: My mother has always assisted me every step of the way to make sure that I am doing what I should be doing educational and career-wise.
  • How did you find out about ACS Project SEED? Who encouraged you to apply?
    • Pentzer: When I started my independent career in 2013, my colleague Prof. Carlos Crespo approached me about being a SEED mentor. I didn’t have any research experience myself until late in my undergraduate career, and I was (and am) very excited to be part of an organization and program that gives research opportunities to high school students.
    • Williams: I found out about ACS SEED through my high school, The Cleveland School of Science and Medicine (CSSM). I was encouraged to apply by the principal of my school and also by my mother.
  • How do you foresee your involvement affecting your future?
    • Pentzer: I love participating as a SEED mentor; it is rewarding to see the students grow from novices in the lab, to having a positive impact on a research project, to helping my research program grow. Working with high school students through the SEED program provides great opportunities for us to try new projects and meet wonderful students.
    • Williams: It affects me greatly because SEED was a wonderful opportunity to surround myself with other dedicated and hard-working individuals. I learned a lot about what science could be like and how to use failures and hard work to improve and be successful. The rewards outweigh the setbacks, which is what I learned from my past two summers in SEED. Now I could say that I did this when viewing past publications and feel a sense of accomplishment. I now know that in the future I will continue to let my hard work be known, and I will never give up when faced with a challenging obstacle.
  • What was the highlight of your experience being involved with Project SEED?
    • Pentzer: I was very busy last summer, going to conferences and getting married, honeymoon, etc. Jaylen was directly mentored by a postdoc in my lab, Dr. Al de Leon, and when Jaylen presented his end of summer poster at a group meeting, I said, “Holy cow this is publishable!” It was really exciting to see how much a high school student can accomplish in a short amount of time
    • Williams: Being able to work hard and have fun with peers around me, and having mentors and a PI who are there to educate me, which resulted in research posters and publishable content.
  • What is the main thing you learned during your involvement?
    • Pentzer: The main thing I learned was just how much and how impactful of work a high school student can make in just eight weeks over the summer. My goal is always for students to have a positive experience in the lab, and watching Jaylen be so productive was a great pleasure for me.
    • Williams: That what you put into your work and research is what you will get out. Working hard to accomplish a goal or complete an objective is rewarding and can make you feel pretty good about yourself, especially if you didn’t believe that you were capable of doing such things with such persistence.
  • Can you tell us a little bit about your research?
    • Pentzer: Our research group focuses on using simple chemical reactions to make new materials and architectures; we are inspired by specific applications and try to use creative and unusual approaches to make better materials
    • Williams:
      • SEED I- Capacitors store energy in an electric field, unlike batteries which depend on chemical reactions. Dielectric constant is a quantity measuring the ability of a substance to store electrical energy in an electric field. The goal of this summer research was to develop polymer film processing techniques to reliably fabricate samples for dielectric characterization.
      • SEED II- Graphene Oxide or GO is graphite that is oxidized and becomes structurally different. GO is often described as a good electrical insulator. The reduction of GO, which results in reduced graphene oxide (rGO), can be achieved in various methods and is crucial in partly restoring the structure and properties of graphene. This is a good electrical insulator. The goal of this summer research was to manipulate the surface activity of GO, so it assembles at the surface of polyamide powder, reducing the graphene oxide to make it electrically conductive and to utilize the conducting powder to 3D print an all-polymer electrostatic motor.
  • If you could choose a scientist from history to meet, who would it be?
    • Pentzer: Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier, Lavoisier’s wife. She made such great contributions to the field of chemistry and helped bring about a modern era, which received little credit at the time.
    • Williams: If I could choose to meet a scientist from history, it would be Steve Irwin, aka The Crocodile Hunter. He was a hero and an individual who I admired and sparked my fascination with wildlife. Watching his documentaries on television late after his death was what I considered not only to be educational but a hobby. I have a lot of respect for him and his work.

Pentzer and Jaylen recently published together in ACS Applied Energy Materials. Read their paper:Plastic Metal-Free Electric Motor by 3D Printing of Graphene-Polyamide Powder’.

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