The University of Tulsa offers a distinctive appeal that sets it apart: a strong commitment to student-led research. This dedication not only empowers students but also positions them for remarkable opportunities in professional and academic fields. At the heart of this commitment is the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) program, which provides invaluable experiences for students and their research endeavors.
An excellent example of the benefits of TURC is Payten Harville, a graduate student at Yale University who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from TU in 2021. Harville attests to how her TURC journey has prepared her for the rigors of Ivy League graduate school.
A passion for chemistry
Originally from Springfield, Missouri, Harville graduated from Parkview High School. Her TURC experience commenced before she began her undergraduate studies, guided by Gordon Purser, professor of chemistry and director of TU’s Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Program (CSURP). CSURP offers students the opportunity to engage in research during the summer months, allowing them to sharpen their research skills year-round. Running parallel to TURC, CSURP provides additional structure, including weekly lunch meetings where faculty and students present research, address questions and learn from one another.
Reflecting on her initial meeting with Purser and his research group, Harville recalls feeling nervous. However, her apprehensions quickly dissipated as she found herself welcomed with warmth and kindness. In the group, she delved into various instrumental techniques; her first project involved studying the kinetics of the hydrolysis of L-arginine ethyl ester, an understudied sports supplement.
Having participated in CSURP for multiple summers, Harville became well-versed in the research interests of each group. She explains that students present their proposed research and preliminary results at the beginning of the summer, followed by a final presentation discussing their findings and future directions.
CSURP, however, is not solely about rigor and structure. The program also includes enjoyable group outings, such as a baseball game early in the summer and a float trip later. “These outings, especially the float trip where the first person to finish was the loser, was a great way for us to relax and bond as a department,” she said.
CSURP equips students with a true understanding of the research process, allowing them to discover their passion for subjects like chemistry. She vividly remembers a defining moment on her way to the lab when she realized, “I want to do this forever.” It was this passion that she highlighted in her application to Yale.
Importantly, Harville emphasized that not all students will find their passion in research and lab work. Recognizing this is crucial as it helps students explore alternative paths outside of pursuing a doctorate.
At Yale, Harville’s focus lies in studying physical chemistry, with a specific emphasis on gas phase cryogenic ion vibrational spectroscopy in the lab of Arthur T. Kemp Professor of Chemistry Mark Johnson. “We use home-built instruments where we combine cryogenic mass spectrometry with infrared (and other) lasers to study the vibrational spectroscopy of ions,” she stated.
Harville credits her TU experience for easing her transition into the demanding Ivy League environment. She found striking similarities between her quantum chemistry course at Yale and her physical chemistry II course taught by Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Erin Iski at TU.
In addition, Harville noted that because her TU lab was composed entirely of undergraduate students, she was able to conduct research more independently. “Rather than having a grad student tell me what to do, I was able to plan, discuss, and run experiments on my own,” she said. “I had the support and mentoring of Purser and my lab mates, but the ability to come into the lab and plan out the experiments is a great way to develop your skills and independence in the lab.”
Upon entering graduate school, Harville initially aspired to pursue a career in academia and eventually become a professor. Her enthusiasm for teaching and her experience as a teaching assistant at both TU and Yale further solidified her interest in this path. However, she is now broadening her horizons and considering exploring the industry after completing her graduate studies. As she nears the beginning of her third year at Yale, Harville remains open to possibilities, eager to see where the next few years will lead.
When it comes to advice for students, Harville emphasized the importance of starting research as early as possible and embracing exploration. “The sooner you engage in research, the earlier you can discern your goals. The more research experience you gain, the better,” she advised.
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