Harbron: A colorful chemistry for undergraduate researchers


Note: This article originally appeared in the W&M Alumni Magazine.  —Ed.

Elizabeth Harbron has an automatic advantage over her colleagues in the chemistry department when it comes to recruiting students into their research labs: she works with chemicals that change color, light up and glow.


“The inherent appeal of light and color can’t be understated. So much of organic chemistry is taking white powder A and reacting it with clear reagent B and producing white powder C,” says Harbron, associate professor of chemistry. “But everything in my lab either is very colorful or changes color in response to light or some other stimulus. There’s a ‘cool factor’ to it.”

Sometimes the Harbron lab incorporates lasers in its work, which gives a nice boost to the light and color and doesn’t hurt the cool factor one bit. Harbron and her student colleagues are aiming to put the hue and glow to work by figuring out the basic chemistry that could lead to a number of practical devices, from sensors to laptop screens readable in full sunlight.

Harbron is just one of the more colorful examples of William and Mary faculty who blend teaching and research. In February, she was awarded the College’s Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, an annual honor that is especially significant when you consider that she teaches Organic Chemistry I and II — watershed courses that have enrollments approaching (and occasionally topping) 200 students. The previous month, she became one of just six U.S. chemists to be named a Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar. The award recognizes chemistry faculty who not only are accomplished researchers themselves, but who also incorporate undergraduate students into their research. Among her other honors, Harbron is a 2008 recipient of the Alumni Fellowship Award.

Peer Mentoring
Harbron has settled on eight as the optimal number of students in a lab group. It’s important to have a group that works well together and over the years, her labs have become predominantly female. Usually there is one guy in the lab each year, and Harbron says that it’s “like having a brother in a roomful of sisters.”

“Initially I was striving for 50/50 gender representation in my group, just because I thought that gave us the best balance of characteristics,” she says. “Becoming predominantly female happened a little bit by accident just in terms of the students I happened to get one year. It has sort of started to sustain itself and I’ve started to think about that a lot more critically.”

She points out that we still have fewer women going into science than men and says the gender disparity in America’s labs is exacerbated by the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, which sees women dropping out of science at various points along the way at a higher rate.

“I’ve realized that the model of peer mentoring I had already started in my lab worked particularly well with women,” Harbron says. “So, I think my approach addresses some of the concerns that may be more heavily felt in a female population.”

One such concern, she says, is confidence — not self-confidence, but scientific confidence. “By that, I mean the confidence to use your hands in the lab, to ask questions about the science, to teach the science to other people, all those sorts of things,” she says. “When someone who formerly has been a straight-A student moves from the classroom to the lab, there’s usually a point in which they think, ‘I don’t understand what to do now’ or ‘I don’t understand how to work this equipment.’ I think girls are so afraid of being wrong — or of making mistakes — that they especially have trouble with that transition.”

Peer mentoring in the Harbron lab is made possible by including students from every level. Harbron works with all the students several times a week, but she encourages her upperclass undergraduates and her master’s students to mentor the newbies. The arrangement sharpens the experienced lab members, as Harbron points out: “You really figure out quickly what you don’t know when you’re trying to explain it to someone.” The freshmen and sophomores get a chance to put what they might be afraid are dumb questions to a fellow student.

“Sometimes the professor can be a little scary, a little intimidating,” Harbron notes. “I do want to be there in the lab, showing them, guiding them, helping them interpret their results. But, if I stand there too much, I think that it also takes away from their developing independence.”

Passing the Torch
The Harbron lab style of peer mentoring also allows for continuity of individual research projects. Take, for instance, what Harbron calls the Pink Projects — a pair of investigations into the potential of chemical- and light-activated dyes as sensors. One of the pink projects, involving a dye known as rhodamine hydroxy-benzaldehyde, was begun by Harbron working with Becca Allred ’10. During her junior year, Courtney Roberts ’11 was one of the chemistry students in a class called Introduction to Chemical Research, in which all the chem faculty give brief talks on their research.

“I’m really interested in organic chemistry,” Roberts says. “The organic part interested me. Then Professor Harbron did a little demonstration with the fluorescence and that grabbed my attention.”

Roberts joined Allred’s project, taking the lead after Allred graduated. As her own graduation date approached, she recruited her rugby teammate, Grace Purnell ’14, to the lab.

“Because I know Courtney and I like working with her, Professor Harbron thought it would be a good idea for us to start collaborating on her projects so that when she graduates, I can become the person in charge of doing that research,” Purnell says?.

Purnell says that she works about three hours a week in the lab, about half the time that Roberts works. The scope of the rhodamine hydroxybenzaldehyde project (like most lab inquiries) extends beyond the time any single undergraduate can devote to it, but the passing of the torch from Allred to Roberts to Purnell allows the Harbron lab to keep the research project moving.

Harbron says that peer mentoring and the collaborative culture evident throughout many of William and Mary’s science labs will serve the College’s science graduates well after they leave Williamsburg.

“Science is much more team-based now than it was in the past and I think that’s only going to continue,” she says. “I think it’s pretty rare for someone to be doing all of their work in isolation. It’s very common now in research universities and graduate programs to have a lot of collaborations between different labs. That means that students need to be able to work with other people and explain what they’re doing with these other people and figure out the interface.”

And for William and Mary students like Courtney Roberts — currently scouting out graduate programs across the country — that means they’re already one step ahead of the game.