Undergraduate Research with Dr. Musselman by Stephanie Fenlon '89
It has been a few years since I participated in the undergraduate research program at F&M. Although it has been some time, I still recall many fond memories of working on the fourth floor in the chemistry department. I worked for the Musselman research group throughout my four years, both during the academic year and during the summer as a Hackman Scholar. Throughout that time, Ron Musselman was not only my research advisor, but also my mentor. What a great privilege and opportunity to write about someone who I admire and who taught me so much!
Back then, Ron Musselman was new to Franklin & Marshall, but not new to teaching. He began his career at Principia College, in southern Illinois, then moved his family and laboratory to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Experienced and ready to begin work in a new department, Ron did what every good faculty/advisor needed to do. He began the long process of recruiting undergraduate students to join his research group. I remember him approaching me to work for him during my first semester freshman chemistry lab. Having three years of chemistry during high school, I was very comfortable managing the experiments required for Chemistry 101. He must have been easily impressed with my knack for packing a melting point tube, because he asked me a few questions about that and then offered me the opportunity to work with him during the academic year.
In the beginning, there were four of us, three freshman and one junior. We were all very enthusiastic. Part of this enthusiasm may have been the result of a challenge presented to each of us. Ron explained that there was some money set aside for students to stay in Lancaster for the summer and do research. The Hackman Scholars, as they are called, spent ten weeks at F&M during June, July and August. Housing, meals and a stipend were provided to participants. How great was this? The issue was that he had money to support only two freshman. As this information was passed on to each of us, it became very clear that someone would not be returning in June. Ron must have been a very confident leader, because this tactic did not discourage any of us. On the contrary, it became a challenge to work hard, and perhaps “outdo” the others. In the end, there were sufficient funds to support all of us and a great deal got accomplished!
After that first year, our group increased in size. During the second summer, many new members joined us, including high school students and teachers from the Lancaster area. The diversity of the group always kept things interesting, as each of us had our own project and focus. In addition to the work, there was also a great deal to learn. Ron worked with us both as a group, as well as, independently.
Group meetings were an important weekly event, often taking place late on Friday afternoon. Discussions focused not only on the accomplishments and trials of the week, but also on plans for the future. Who had the most success? What new stumbling block was discovered? Who was writing a new grant? What was it about? How would our projects have an impact on society? Something about Ron’s calm disposition and tone attracted our attention. As he rarely raised his voice, it was important to listen carefully. Group meetings were also a great time for storytelling. It was in this type of setting where we learned that Ron once served as a volunteer firefighter; and his Dad was a well-known California artist. We heard stories about his family and about his time as an undergraduate at Harvey Mudd College. Accounts of funny conversations with a collaborator or a former student were also common topics.
Regularly Ron would invite the members of our group over to his home. In the summer months, hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill were the standard fare, along with an ongoing volleyball contest. During the winter months, Trudi, Mrs. Musselman, and Ron would host us in their dining room for a home-cooked meal. By far, this was my favorite off-campus Musselman event. Always scheduled close to the time of final exams, it was so nice to have a delicious hot meal, as opposed to what was being served in the cafeteria. Never mind the time of year, outings to the Musselmans always ended with the same activity. We gathered in front of the television and watched Ron’s favorite movie, “The Graduate.”
Meeting during office hours is where I got to know Ron best. His ability to keep his office door open and get work done still amazes me. Our discussions could involve figuring out the structure of a crystal, understanding the pattern on an X-ray film, analyzing a spectrum, etc. More often than not, it was a time for him to put on that mentoring “hat” and offer me some often requested, but always valued, advice about chemistry or life in general. It was great to get his perspective and have his support. I recall many a conversation with him about whether or not to apply to graduate school, how to choose a program and how best to select a research advisor. Meetings such as this could become lengthy, but eventually we always took a break. Break-time for Ron meant “cocoa-time.” Hot cocoa was Ron’s “warm” drink of choice. I still smile when I recall how Ron was set up for snack time right in his office.
Retired from F&M, Ron now lives in Florida and is very busy working in the chemistry department at University of South Florida. After tackling the challenge of renovating their older home, Ron and Trudi are settled into their new community. We still hear from them at the holidays. A few years before he retired, I moved back to Lancaster. Having the occasion to visit Ron and Trudi with my husband and then, four year old son, was a lunch to remember. As expected, there were stories and I learned still more about my former research advisor.