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Double bond

Chemistry professor’s charge to students: Do undergrad research and advocate for your rights

August 2, 2019

FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Q&A with ERIC STEMP, PhD

Chemistry Professor Eric Stemp, PhD, Loring-Denault Endowed Chair in Chemistry, has a long history of advocating for Mount students, whether for new research opportunities or his most recent interest in first amendment rights. And he has the coolest lab on campus.

What’s new in the science world at the Mount?
First, we just hosted the Southern California Undergraduate Research Conference in Chemistry and Biochemistry for the first time. We had 130 student presenters from as far away as Cal State Bakersfield, along with USC, UCLA, and UCI. It was fantastic! And we had Sarah Cruz ’15, a recent biochemistry grad, who now works at JPL, as our keynote speaker. Second, thanks to the Mount’s Institutional Advancement team, we also got a matching grant from the John Stauffer Foundation for $500,000 that will be used to fund student stipends for summer research for decades to come.

Why is summer research key to the student experience?
Research is a transformative experience for our students. It’s the one class where you have to work independently, but you’re not rushed — you can learn at your own pace. Research forces students to integrate information from multiple sources and it is something the Mount does differently. At UCLA, if you go up to a chemistry professor as a freshman and say, “Hey, I want to do research in your lab,” they’re going to laugh at you. At the Mount, our chemistry and biochemistry majors are required to do research. And if there’s a student that wants to start the first week of school, we start then. Also, at big universities, the professors simply hold the bar up and say, "jump!" with the responsibilities. In contrast, we meet the students where they are. Our faculty break down difficult concepts into digestible chunks, in essence providing rungs on the ladder to success.

Besides science, what else are you passionate about?
I realized that the culture war was coming to STEM. I don’t consider myself to be a conservative, but I tell my students things like, “This is America, hard work wins.” If you say, “If you work hard, you will succeed,” it is actually considered to be a microaggression, because it doesn’t take into account the different backgrounds of the students in your class. And it’s not like we’re not sensitive to that at the Mount. We are. We do our best to help them every step of the way, but at the same time, when you take the MCAT, they’re not going to care what your ethnicity is. So I started doing some free speech research through student surveys. I’m going to advocate for the rights of students to speak out and to have their opinions, and also to continue to educate people about what the first amendment is.

So, is your chemistry lab filled with cool equipment like the show CSI?
Yes! We got a new laser system that has a nanosecond laser pulse that starts our photochemistry. Then we can watch as oxidation damages the DNA, and we can watch the rescuer, the antioxidant molecule, comes in and rescue the DNA. With this new system, we see the end results, but we can also watch the steps that happen in real time on the microsecond time scale. It is super cool!