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Naval Chemistry


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U.S. Naval Academy chemistry majors are a different breed, Rudy M. Baum, Chemical & Engineering News, February 15, 2010, Volume 88, Number 7, pp. 49


The U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md., is not your average four-year undergraduate college, especially when it comes to chemistry.
Okay, you’re thinking, what part of that statement isn’t obvious? Point well-taken. But do you know why it’s not your average four-year college?
Let’s parse the statement from the point of view of a chemistry professor at the academy. The academy has about 4,000 undergraduate students. They all know that, when they graduate, they all will have a job and that they all will be employed by the same employer.
All 1,200 first-year students—technically, midshipmen 4th class, or plebes—take first-year chemistry, a course that is so well-known (read notorious) that it has its own name: plebe chemistry. They are taught in classes of 20 plebes by one of the academy’s 43 chemistry department faculty members. The one-hour class meets three times per week. Because there are no graduate students at the academy to function as teaching assistants, each group’s weekly two-hour lab is taught by the same faculty member who teaches the group in the classroom.
Despite the fact that a chemistry major at the academy is considered one of the toughest majors—if not the toughest—to complete, between 30 and 40 students per class major in the subject. Although most of the chemistry majors each year will conduct productive independent research during their fourth year and a few will receive a coveted “Medical Corps” billet and enter medical school after they graduate from the academy, none will immediately pursue a career in the chemical sciences. Few will ever engage with chemistry again in their careers.
“We know where all of our graduates are going: the Navy,” says Mark L. Elert, the Naval Academy’s chemistry department chairman, now on his second tour of duty in the position. “Our mission is so much clearer than at many other schools. When we consider a curriculum change, we really only have one criterion to consider: Will that produce better naval officers? That’s what we do.”
How does that play out? C&EN visited the Naval Academy late last month and talked to several chemistry department faculty members and six midshipmen first class, the rank of seniors at the academy.
“A midshipman’s most precious commodity is time,” Elert says. “Their curriculum is absolutely packed with academic activities, athletic activities, and professional activities. We have to be cognizant of that.”
From its inception, the Naval Academy has had roughly equal numbers of military and civilian faculty members, which sets it apart from the other service academies, Elert notes. The chemistry department faculty is large because of the way plebe chemistry is taught. Its composition is skewed heavily toward civilians, largely because there is not much demand for Ph.D. chemists in the Navy. Thirty-one members of the faculty are tenure-track civilians, six professors are Navy officers, and six are full-time civilian adjunct professors. The department also houses six postdoctoral researchers.
All members of the chemistry faculty conduct research, although there are no graduate students and only a few have postdoctoral fellows in their labs. Elert, for example, is a computational chemist who simulates chemical reactions in shock waves and detonations. Most of the faculty have senior chemistry majors doing research in their labs.
“We are proud of our position in the ACS Committee on Professional Training rankings for chemistry graduates,” Elert notes. The Naval Academy is 13th in the U.S. for the number of degrees its ACS-certified chemistry program awards and first among undergraduate-only institutions.
The chemistry major curriculum at the Naval Academy underwent a comprehensive overhaul early in this decade, Elert says. Prior to the overhaul, chemistry majors took three years of laboratories coordinated with the classroom courses being taught to second-, third-, and fourth-year students. In 2004, the academy instituted a two-year integrated laboratory program for chemistry majors that students took during their second and third years (J. Chem. Ed. 2007, 84, 1706). The 11 credit hours of traditional laboratory courses were replaced with eight credit hours, and a research experience was included for all students in their senior year.
In their paper, Naval Academy chemistry professor Maria J. Schroeder and coauthors write: “The four-semester sequence of integrated laboratory (IL) courses is organized along broader themes within chemistry with most experiments investigating multiple areas of chemistry simultaneously. It also has the pedagogical advantage of showing students a more realistic view of how chemistry is actually performed in research and industrial settings.”
If chemistry is such a tough major, why do some midshipmen gravitate to it? Shirley Lin, an associate professor, says one attraction is that chemistry is probably the best preparation for being selected for the Medical Corps, especially considering that the academy doesn’t offer a biology major. Another reason, Lin says, is the simple fact that it is hard. “The academy tends to attract young men and women who like a challenge,” she notes. Lin’s research focuses on the synthesis of new materials through the development of novel reactions and the use of noncovalent interactions.
C&EN spoke with Midshipmen 1st Class Meagan Geuther, Kathleen Cannon, Jack Hatcher, Sarah Simmler, Will McIlvanie, and Grayson Young, all of whom are chemistry majors. Geuther and Cannon secured two of this year’s 10 Medical Corps billets and will attend medical school in the fall. Hatcher is going into submarines and will spend the next two years learning about nuclear power plants and skippering a sub. Simm­ler is headed for “the basic school,” where she will train to be a Marine Corps second lieutenant. McIlvanie is going to naval flight school to become a flight officer, and Young will train to be an officer on an Aegis cruiser or destroyer. All six midshipmen are doing independent research this year.
A nomenclature break: The entire student body at the Naval Academy is termed “the brigade.” The brigade is split into two regiments, and each regiment is split into three battalions. Each battalion has five companies. That works out to 30 companies overall. A midshipman is assigned to a company upon entering the academy and stays with that company throughout their four years there. The company “is your core unit,” Cannon says. “You live in your company. You form very strong ties to your company.”
“Chemistry and aeronautical engineering are the hardest majors at the academy,” Geuther says. “You go out in the halls at 2:30 or 3 in the morning, and you see the aero majors in your company and you see the chem majors walking around because they’re burning the midnight oil, working on labs. It’s definitely challenging.”
Although the Naval Academy is different from other undergraduate institutions, some things—such as the mainstream view of chemistry—are surprisingly constant. “I chose chemistry because it was the best path to the Medical Corps,” Cannon says. “Plebe chemistry has the stigma as the most awful course you take plebe year, and to actually enjoy that set me apart from everyone else.”
Simmler echoes Cannon, saying, “The chemistry major was very rigorous. When you tell people you’re a chemistry major, they give you a stare like you must really enjoy pain.”
All of the midshipmen C&EN talked to emphasized that being a chemistry major at the Naval Academy taught them to be highly organized and to manage their time well. The integrated laboratory program, they all concurred, added to the challenge of majoring in chemistry but was also highly rewarding because it prepared them well for conducting independent research during their senior year.
The midshipmen universally praised the chemistry faculty at the academy. “They are phenomenal,” Cannon says. “I think we’re closer to our professors than in any other department.”
The chemistry professors return the compliment. “The admissions process, which is very selective, works miracles,” Elert says. “The midshipmen are great. It’s not just their academic performance. They are physically fit. They have great leadership potential. They are articulate, friendly, nice people. It’s a pleasure to be a faculty member here.”
“I can’t imagine a better undergraduate teaching position,” says Daniel P. Morse, an associate professor. “We have a relatively light teaching load and better than average students. As far as research is concerned, we have more resources than the average undergraduate college.” Morse’s research focuses on RNA biochemistry, specifically enzymes that edit RNA in the nucleus after it is transcribed from DNA.
Joseph J. Urban, another associate professor, says of the academy, “It is an interesting place to be. I love it here. It’s not for everybody, of course. If you are dreaming of a more traditional chemistry department, this would seem odd.” Chemistry majors at the academy, Urban observes, do research out of pure interest in the subject. “I’m not grooming people to follow in my footsteps,” he notes. Urban is a computational organic chemist.
Right now, about 1,200 midshipmen are sweating their way through plebe chemistry at the Naval Academy. In a few weeks, 30 to 40 of those midshipmen will choose chemistry as their major. (All plebes choose their major in March.) Almost all of those who choose chemistry will make that choice because, as McIlvanie tells C&EN, “in the end, my decision was based mostly on the fact that, of the subjects I had been exposed to, I liked chemistry the most. I like being in the lab, and the work interests me.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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