Student Research Creates Pathway to Success for Chemistry Graduates

Hao Zhu lab, Rutgers University–Camden

By Caroline Yount

For Marlene Kim and Kathryn Ribay, the chemistry department at Rutgers University–Camden was a life changer.

The two recent graduates have moved on to the next chapter in their lives – Marlene as a staff fellow at the Food and Drug Administration and Kathryn as a doctoral student in science education at Stanford – but credit their time on campus, and especially the mentoring of Hao Zhu, an associate professor of chemistry, as a key element of their success.

Kim was teaching high school science in Philadelphia when she decided to start the master’s chemistry program at Rutgers–Camden on a part-time basis. One day in biochemistry class, Zhu announced he was looking for researchers to join his lab. Zhu studies cheminformatics, defined as the science of examining the structure and function of chemicals through the use of computational analysis, statistics, and pattern recognition. His Rutgers–Camden research lab uses computer algorithms, workflows, and other relevant computational tools to model chemical toxicity; absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion; and other biological activities. The resulting models are used in regulatory chemical toxicity assessments and computer-aided drug discovery.

At the time, Kim had no experience in computational work, but was eager to learn. She joined the lab, and discovered a passion that encouraged her to leave her teaching job to study chemistry full time. “It was challenging at first, but I realized that computational work needs clean, well-organized data. That is what takes the majority of the time,” Kim says.

Kim enjoyed the research and her classes so much that she decided to pursue her doctoral degree in chemistry, subsequently becoming the first Ph.D. student in Zhu’s lab.

In addition to her academic achievements, which include publishing seven papers (two as the first author) in peer-reviewed scientific journals, two book chapters, and six conference abstracts, Kim took her role as the first Ph.D. student very seriously, Zhu says. “Marlene helped guide other Ph.D., master’s, and even undergraduate students. She is not just a good scientist, but also a good teacher and a good leader.”

Ribay, too, was a high school science teacher when she started the master’s program in chemistry part time. Zhu credits the graduates’ maturity and teaching experience with helping them successfully juggle graduate studies with full-time jobs.

“They both worked very hard and were very mature. They had the skills to handle the pressure of research and full-time work. They handled the pressure quite well,” says the Rutgers–Camden scholar.

Ribay would go on to finish not only her studies but also a scientific research project, which she published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal as the first author. For her thesis, directed by Zhu, Ribay studied hybrid modeling of estrogen receptor binding agents using advanced cheminformatics tools and massive public data. Because she was still working full time, Zhu helped her design a computational research project that she could work on mainly at home at night and on weekends on her laptop.

The workload was challenging, she recalls, and there were times when she questioned her decision. But Ribay persevered. “It was really satisfying to know I accomplished it, even when there were times I didn’t think I could.”

She says it helped that the Rutgers–Camden chemistry department and especially Zhu’s lab believed in her. “It was a supportive campus,” Ribay says. “People wanted me to be successful and do well. I felt that while I was there.”

Zhu hopes that more science teachers will pursue master’s or even doctoral programs at Rutgers–Camden. Educating teachers has an added bonus, she says, because the teachers then share newfound knowledge with their own students.

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