Recollections of Research with Ken Hess by Rob Steiner '93
I had the good fortune of attending a high school where the curriculum provided two full years of chemistry offered by an excellent chemistry faculty. With that background, when I entered Franklin and Marshall College and chose chemistry as my major, I was well-prepared for what lay ahead. My initial plan was to graduate from F&M with a major in chemistry and to attend medical school. However, during my pre-med course work I quickly realized that my interests were truly directed toward chemistry, and I decided to follow a path in line with those interests.
As part of my chemistry curriculum at Franklin and Marshall I was given the unique opportunity to pursue undergraduate research as a Hackman Fellow during the summer between my third and fourth years, and again during the fall and spring semesters of my fourth year for course credit. The undergraduate research program provides a solid example of the college’s commitment to the close student/faculty interactions that initially attracted me and ultimately drove my decision to attend F&M.
During my first three years, classroom and laboratory work associated with the specific chemistry disciplines provided me with a basic knowledge and understanding of the field, piqued my interest, and led the way for further investigation through the undergraduate research program. The chemistry faculty offered a measured and integrated approach to undergraduate research that provided each student with an appropriately complex project in a well-defined area, while also exposing them to the work of other students in different chemistry disciplines. This introduction to true scientific research and the application of the scientific method within a fairly structured framework made my eventual transition to graduate school a smooth one, especially in contrast to other classmates who didn’t have these rigors in their undergraduate programs.
My research at F&M was directed by Dr. Ken Hess and was primarily focused on fundamental spectroscopic studies of steady-state and pulsed glow discharge plasmas. This work included the investigation of distinct excitation/ionization regimes and their application to selective analyte ionization mechanisms. This was a new, engaging experience for me. My analytical skill sets were honed as well as my knowledge of instrumentation and mechanical systems, which I had always enjoyed. A fellow student, Joe Vizzoni, and I spent countless hours aligning optical lens systems attempting to optimize signal throughput. At a minimum, the experience taught us both a lesson in patience. Both Joe and I were also given the opportunity to attend the annual Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies conference where the work we had completed during our summer fellowships was presented. This experience provided me with exposure to an international meeting as an undergraduate and introduced me to my future Ph.D. advisor.
By this point it should be very apparent that my experiences in the undergraduate research program at F&M had a profoundly positive impact on my academic pursuits and, ultimately, on my professional career. The faculty’s commitment to the undergraduate research program ensuring a rewarding academic experience cannot be overstated. As a side benefit, they also provided entertainment and comic relief at times. This was best demonstrated during our weekly softball games during the summer Hackman program. Every Wednesday afternoon students and professors would head out to the softball field behind Marshall-Buchanan Hall for some fun in the sun. Dr. Farrell had played organized baseball, but that’s about where the hard core skill set ended. This was a great opportunity to share some time with the faculty in a much different setting, and it usually involved a wide range of errors, heckling, and minor injuries. Joe and I also took every opportunity to repay Dr. Hess for all of the pain he inflicted upon us in his analytical chemistry class. There is something fundamentally wrong with four-hour exams, but Dr. Hess took pride in his ability to get the most out of us. One evening while working on the glow discharge system, Joe and I decided to fill Dr. Hess’s office with balloons. After several trips to the store for more balloons and a huge volume of compressed air, we finally gave up at around four in the morning. There was no end to the grief we received the following day when we got to the lab. Dr. Hess’s office was certainly the topic of discussion that day. I only wish we could have figured out how to fill it with water and fish. Keep in mind this was before Google and discovering *great* pranks, so I’m sure students today could do much better than we did.
The undergraduate research program at F&M allows students to experience many of the aspects of a graduate research program while at a small liberal arts college. It helps prepare students for the next step in their careers whether that be further education or entry into the work force. This environment also encourages students to develop more personal relationships and friendships with their professors and mentors, many of which continue for many years to come. I certainly look forward to returning to Lancaster County at the holidays each year to catch up with the folks in the Chemistry Department or to have dinner with friends and colleagues and reminisce about my time at F&M.