Creating Good Chemistry

April 23, 2003

David Leiva

Chemistry. It can be a nasty word at cocktail parties and on long plane rides. Just ask Sankaran Thayumanavan, assistant professor of chemistry. "Invariably, whenever I tell people [my job] they say 'I hated that class,'" says Thayumanavan, who goes by the shortened name, "Thai."

And that's just the kind of uphill battle he, a handful of devoted professors and practically the entire science world are fighting to address a little-known epidemic: there are not nearly enough scientists.

"Science is desperate for bright people," he said. For two years, Thai has spearheaded an effort to sell high-achieving students on the merits of skipping medical school for a career in the sciences. But he's not hanging out at the University Center or putting ads in the Hullabaloo or working the career fair booths. He's "recruiting" high school students through the Tulane Science Scholars Program.

In 1998, faculty member Daniel Schwartz initiated the program with support from the deans of the engineering school and the liberal arts and sciences faculty. It was aimed at identifying exceptional high school students willing to give up Saturday mornings to attend advanced science courses on campus. And not just any students, but really bright and motivated ones. The kind getting attention from top-rated universities, Thai said.

Schwartz has since left the university, but the program continues. Two years ago, Thai took over with a partial grant from the National Science Foundation. Last year, about 130 information packets were sent to area schools and 50 students applied. They had references, good grade point averages and took an exam. Only 30 were selected.

"Some applied but we didn't think they were ready yet," Thai said. Those picked were handed over this spring to faculty members Scott Davis, Anthony Lamana, John Dauns and David Mullin. These professors volunteer their time to hold lectures and guided experiments. Other professors are added at other times of the year. Their last session was March 29. The program aims for each student to raise his or her awareness of the merits of studying science.

"These kids are brighter than the average," said Mullin, associate professor of cell and molecular biology, who likens his work to public service. Mullin taught bacterial molecular genetics this semester. This time, he broke from his typical format of lectures to do 100 percent lab work. "It was a chance most high school students don't have," he said.

They cloned a gene and verified it was done, using genetic and physical methods. And Mullin paid for the materials through his research funds. Students also had options ranging from physical, chemical, and biological to computing sciences. And for good measure, there was a touch of engineering and mathematics available.

Dauns, professor of mathematics, lectured on cryptology and forensic sciences. He explained the connection with math and the historical use of concealed messages in wars dating back to the Civil War.

"It's fun to present a problem to high school students that would be a challenge to graduate students," he said. In Dauns' view, there is little difference between these accomplished junior and senior high school students and undergraduates. At least four of the six students in the Science Scholars Program recently were admitted to Tulane for next year and were awarded Deans' Honor Scholarships, Thai said. Not a bad return.

Still, Thai knows that filling the ranks of science will not happen overnight. His heart was a little broken recently when one of his top undergraduates told him she was going to medical school. "My take is [medical schools] are overpopulated and underpopulated in science," he said. "We need a balance." Thai grinned, adding, the student could have done better.

Editor's Note: For more information on the program, visit the Web site at http://www.  

David Leiva can be reached at

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