SEAL students make the grade for science research
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SOUTHEASTERN “SEALS” – Students in Southeastern Louisiana University’s SEAL (Student Entrepreneurs as Active Leaders) program conduct chemical testing and research to answer questions for area industries. From left, are Patrick Weber, Hammond; Lexi Ruibal, Ponchatoula; Patrick Gentry, Independence; Jordan Dinser, Hammond; Southeastern physics professor David Norwood, SEAL faculty leader; and Megan Lanier, Amite.
HAMMOND – Southeastern Louisiana University science students are not only impressing their professors but also local Louisiana chemical companies through a program that links undergraduate students with industrial research.
Initially funded by a five-year, $425,000 Post-Katrina Support Fund Initiative (PKSFI) grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents to spur the state’s economic development, the Southeastern SEAL program, which stands for “Student Entrepreneurs as Active Leaders,” has generated a buzz around the chemical and engineering community after only one year of operation, said David Norwood, associate professor of physics and SEAL faculty leader. The program was recently featured in the national newsletter, “Chemical & Engineering News,” published by the American Chemical Society.
SEAL is based on a highly successful program called “ChemEngine” at Virginia Commonwealth University, which gives students valuable industrial experience. The program allows the creation of a student-managed, faculty-supervised non-profit corporation that provides scientific services to area industries. In the process, students gain the valuable experience of doing practical research and working directly with industry representatives.
“This job is not just turning knobs and handling chemicals in the lab,” Norwood said. “These students are getting first-hand experience in all aspects of the science world, including how to handle the business aspects of a profit-bearing company.”
Megan Lanier of Amite, a junior chemistry major and SEAL student manager, said the program has not only taught her about chemical research but has also brought her out of her shell.
“I am typically a very shy person but SEAL has given me a lot of practice with presentations and public speaking,” Lanier said. “The contacts I have made with chemical companies and top-notch researchers are invaluable.”
Debra Dolliver, a synthetic organic chemistry professor and co-faculty leader of SEAL adds that the program in a win-win situation for all who take part in the process.
“Not only are these students learning real life experiences and something new every day, but the companies will know where to look in the future when they need to hire skilled, reliable and knowledgeable college graduates,” Dolliver said.
“Like most chemical companies, we are constantly trying to develop new products and conduct research,” said Artie McKim, technical director of Gaylord Chemical Company in Bogalusa, La. “The problem we discovered is that we didn’t have the time or resources to research what we wanted and the SEAL students have done an excellent job of solving some of our burning questions.”
Over the past year, five Southeastern students have taken part and found great success within the SEAL program and Norwood hopes to hire at least one more student for the fall semester.
The goal is to eventually set up contracts with local chemical companies by designating an allotted amount of time to answer their specific research questions without the risk of a long-term commitment.
“We are doing this for free for a while, with the help of the Post-Katrina fund, to show the companies what we’re capable of accomplishing in a fairly short period of time. We believe they will be impressed enough to eventually pay for our services,” Norwood said.
McKim agreed by saying he has been highly impressed with the SEAL student’s level of knowledge and enthusiasm.
“The SEAL students have been fantastic,” McKim said. “They are enthusiastic, proactive, young students with a high level of skill that some people even at the graduate level don’t have. It’s really neat to see students so excited about learning.”
Jordan Dinser of Hammond, a junior chemistry major and SEAL student manager, said the program has given her the opportunity to learn and work with experienced researchers that otherwise she would have never received.
“Being able to travel and attend conferences with top researchers in the field has been really interesting and I really enjoy what we do,” Dinser said.
Dinser and Lanier said they both plan to attend graduate school and develop vigorous careers in the chemical industry.
According to Norwood, the SEAL program expects to be self-sufficient and off grant money by the end of their five-year term.
“The bottom line is that after five years, the money will be gone and the SEAL program will have to stand on its own two feet,” Norwood said. “Over the course of the next five years, we want to evolve into that step and we have no reason to believe it won’t work.”
Norwood said the cost of hiring SEAL students is nominal compared to what companies would have to pay a new employee to investigate their research questions that may or may not prove to have beneficial answers.
“What we are asking companies to pay is $30 an hour while allowing the SEALs an opportunity to learn under the supervision of someone with expertise,” Norwood said. “It’s actually a bargain because they hire the SEAL students and ultimately get the faculty input for free. It’s almost an impulse buy because the important information the students discover through research outweighs the cost.”
For more information about the Southeastern SEAL program, visit www.phys.selu.edu/seal/.