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Caldwell Inspires Student’s Passion for Organic Chemistry

Paige Silvia’s face lights up when she speaks about organic chemistry and how assistant chemistry professor Xiaolei Gao, Ph.D., has inspired her passion for the discipline. A biology major, Silvia added a chemistry minor after taking Gao’s organic chemistry class. This past summer she took part in Caldwell’s STEM Advance summer research internship program, made possible by a U.S. Department of Education grant.

For more than 80 hours Silvia worked one on one with Gao on C-H activation, a key concept in synthetic organic chemistry. The experience was educational, challenging and rigorous. Silvia recalls how at one point she was struggling with a skill and tried to master it more than 50 times in one week. “It was so aggravating,” says Silvia, but Gao patiently guided her. “And then I finally got it down.” Having Gao to help her, “not just [with] a sea of other students, motivated me and made me want to go into this more.”

Later in the summer, Silvia and Gao traveled to Atlanta to participate in a conference at Emory University. Silvia presented her poster on “Development of Robust C-H Activation Reactions to Incorporate into Undergraduate Laboratory Course,” attended presentations by professionals and engaged in networking. And there were some “wow” moments. “You learn so much in school, especially in organic chemistry. On paper you can read, memorize, but when I went to the conference I was like ‘That’s a real-world reaction of what I knew,’” Silvia says. (Silvia’s work was also funded by an award Gao obtained from the National Science Foundation Center for Selective C-H Functionalization at Emory University.)

Gao chose to work on C-H activation because she believes there is a strong need to incorporate hot topics in current chemistry into undergraduate laboratory courses, exposing students to today’s cutting-edge science to inspire the next generation of scientists. “Organic chemistry laboratory courses have not changed much in the past 50 years,” she explains. Although the field of organic chemistry has advanced tremendously, and many new and exciting reactions were discovered in recent decades, “few of them made it into college classrooms.” She is working to counter that by bringing contemporary organic chemistry studies to her students.

During the summer internship, Silvia also mentored a high school student who wanted to explore organic chemistry further to see if he would like to pursue those studies. “Paige was a wonderful mentor … She learned leadership skills in the process,” Gao says.

Silvia’s internship was made possible through the historic $4,979,840 competitive grant Caldwell received from the U.S. Department of Education Hispanic-Serving Institutions STEM and Articulation Program to benefit Hispanic and low-income students planning careers in science, math and computer science.

She successfully completed the internship while working another summer job and staying in shape as a student athlete on the softball team. The first in her family to attend college and the daughter of hard-working parents, she is proud of her Puerto Rican heritage and happy that the STEM grant program focuses on making opportunities available to Hispanic students. Her father is a heavy-equipment operator, and her mother has worked for the state government in human resources for years. Although her mom loves her job, she has always told her daughter that she wants her to have choices in the work world. “They wanted me to go to college so I have options, so I have an opportunity to do what makes me happy,” says Silvia, who grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts.

As Silvia looks forward to the new school year—when she will graduate a year early—she is grateful to Caldwell and Gao for helping her find her passion. “I chose Caldwell for one-on-one connections.” The choice has proven to be a good one. The way forward for her is clearer now as she looks into graduate schools for chemistry. “This is what I want to do. This is what I can do and what I love.”

STEM Advance summer research interns Samuel Annan and Paige Silvia working in the lab.



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