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 April 10, 2000

Undergraduate Joins Retiree in Research

After more than 50 years, James Bobbitt still loves to do research. And he still loves to pass on his knowledge to undergraduates.

Last month, eight years after the chemistry professor retired, he won a two-year, $20,000 grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation to continue involving undergraduates in research.

The grant, one of 18 awarded in a national competition, began this semester. It is supporting an undergraduate to work with Bobbitt in his research lab, searching for new oxidizing agents that don't contain heavy metals - unlike the traditional agents, which contain chromium or manganese.

Deborah Dews, a sixth-semester chemistry major, is the beneficiary. The grant has enabled her to spend up to eight hours a week doing research with Bobbitt in the Emeriti Lab in the new chemistry building, and to be paid an hourly rate for her work.

Dews, who switched from psychology to chemistry earlier this year, has not previously done research.

"I've not had an opportunity to work one-on-one with a professor before," she says. "I'm really learning a lot. The reactions we do in labs have already been done; we already know the outcome. Here I have to go through all the steps."

Bobbitt describes the arrangement as a type of apprenticeship. "Undergraduates are basically going to learn how to do all the operations, how to use the equipment, and how to do the work," he says.

They'll also, he adds, learn some inside information: "There are tricks to any trade. Working one-on-one with someone, you're going to learn a lot of them," he says, demonstrating how he uses in his experiments a special orthodontic rubber sheet he obtained from a dentist at the UConn Health Center.

"I'm learning a lot of new techniques," says Dews, as she vacuums air out of a container to squeeze the water out of a bright orange substance, a previously unknown organic nitroxide. "I'm seeing things I hear about in lectures, but I'm more involved. Professor Bobbitt gives me mini-lectures sometimes, about why people do things and how to do them. I definitely appreciate what he tells me."

Bobbitt is delighted to share with Dews the knowledge he has gained during a half-century of research.

"I like chemistry and I like to teach. I enjoy students tremendously," he says. "And they get to learn whatever I can teach them. They get good experience."

Bobbitt, who joined the faculty in 1956 and retired in 1992, continues to spend 35 to 40 hours a week in the lab. It's about 15 hours less than when he was a full-time professor.

He says involving undergraduates in his research is not new - he's had undergraduates in his lab since he joined UConn - but the University now places greater emphasis on undergraduate research.

Seeking to make undergraduate research a hallmark of the institution, the Office of Undergraduate Education and Instruction recently undertook to make the research experience available to any undergraduat e who seeks it. And a new office of undergraduate research, established in January, will help raise students' awareness of the opportunities for doing research and of the financial and other forms of support available.

Bobbitt says involving students in research early in their college careers is important. "Chemistry is a hard curriculum," Bobbitt says. "The sooner you can involve people in meaningful lab work - real chemistry - the more likely they are to become interested and go on."

Bobbitt says undergraduates can be involved in any research program in chemistry, but his program works particularly well for undergraduates because it is easily divided into manageable chunks.

"Each person can work a bit, can be reasonably independent, and have a chance of getting something out of it, perhaps even publication of an article or two," he says, adding that he hopes Dews will present some of her work in a paper at the American Chemical Society regional meeting in June.

The prospects are looking good. After just three weeks in the lab, Dews had already found two new compounds that are oxidizing agents. Although the chemistry is not complex," says Bobbitt, "it's still new work."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu