7/20/2015 Peter Durantine

Guiding Students From Classroom Learner to Research Contributor

During more than three decades of teaching and conducting scientific research at Franklin & Marshall College, Phyllis Leber has demonstrated a tireless dedication to transforming her undergraduates from learners to collaborators.

For her efforts, the Dr. E. Paul and Frances H. Reiff Professor of Chemistry recently received the prestigious E. Emmet Reid Award in Chemistry Teaching at Small Colleges in the American Chemical Society's Middle Atlantic Region. The award recognizes quality teacher-scholars.

"The faculty member serves as a role model for students with respect to the creation of new knowledge," Leber said in accepting the award. "As undergraduates collaborate with faculty members, the nature of the student-faculty relationship changes … to one of lifetime colleague, in that informal advice or even formal letters of recommendation are often sought many years after graduation."

  • "The faculty member serves as a role model for students with respect to the creation of new knowledge," Leber says. "As undergraduates collaborate with faculty members, the nature of the student-faculty relationship changes … to one of lifetime colleague." Image Credit: Melissa Hess

As the fourth F&M chemistry professor in 35 years to receive the award — the others are Fred Snavely (1980), Jim Spencer (1999) and Claude Yoder (2008) — Leber hews to the College's tradition of professors integrating students into their scholarly work, said Associate Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Morford, the department chair.

"She is in a cohort of colleagues in this department who exemplify that tenet," Morford said. "The award is a phenomenal way to have external recognition for the extraordinary time and energy they spend on their scholarship."

Since arriving at F&M in 1982, Leber has maintained "an enduring research program, rooted in her passion for working with undergraduates," said Yoder, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Chemistry.

"Phyllis' achievements in teaching and scholarship, and her ability to challenge and inspire students, are outstanding," Yoder said. "The recognition is well deserved."

Leber has been the recipient of 18 research grants, primarily from the American Chemical Society's Petroleum Research Fund, which recently gave her a three-year award for her project, "The Use of a Cyclopropylcarbinyl Radical Rearrangement as a Singlet Diradical Probe."

The Dreyfus Foundation and National Science Foundation also have funded her student-assisted research. Leber has worked with more than 50 students and published more than 50 journal articles, including papers devoted to environmental laboratory projects and trends in undergraduate research. Many of her research students were co-authors and went on to graduate or medical school.  

In this occasional feature called "Three Questions," Leber discusses the impact of professor-student collaboration, as well as her latest research endeavor.

Has the professor-student collaboration changed in the last three decades?

Leber: Fundamentally, I don't think it has. What is different is the student-faculty relationship in the classroom in the conventional context versus the research laboratory. In the classroom, the relationship between teacher and student is more hierarchical; students are assigned grades by the faculty member, and the faculty member is viewed as a fountain of knowledge, if you will, whether or not that is true. Whereas in the research lab — and this has been true the last three or more decades — students are coequals. Working during the summer, they are paid interns, in essence, and are not assigned grades. They understand that they are able to contribute to a research project. Initially, there's a steep learning curve, but their input is important, and as they acquire more knowledge of what they’re doing, they can make increasingly greater contributions.

Do you think students learn more from the classroom teaching or the research lab collaboration?

Leber: It's really interactive. In the early days of working in the research lab, their frame of reference is clearly what they've learned in a classroom and the teaching  laboratory. But over time, as they gain more experience, I think it's more iterative in either direction. It's interesting. Sometimes students in a classroom will be thinking about something they’ve done in a research lab and begin to see there's a relationship there. That's the beauty of undergraduate research: it begins to inform their education much more broadly than it had at the outset.

What research are you undertaking with your recent grant award?

Leber: We are using a new biochemical technique to examine a thermal reaction that we have been studying to determine whether the reaction occurs simultaneously — what we call a concerted mechanism — or whether it happens in a process of steps that causes one chemical bond to break first before new bonds form. 

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