Assistant professor of chemistry Paul Raston received the $100,000 Cottrell Scholar Award by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement as recognition for acting as a leader in the integration of research and education within chemistry nationally. He’s one of 24 scholars throughout the U.S. given the award and the second consecutive JMU professor to win.
In 2015, the award was modified to include undergraduate universities such as JMU in the selection process rather than only large-scale institutions offering Ph.D programs. Out of the four years with this modification, JMU has had two consecutive years of Cottrell Scholars from the chemistry and biochemistry department. Raston works with 2018 Cottrell scholar winner and JMU assistant professor Ashleigh Baber in research and teaching projects.
“It says a lot about the chemistry department,” Raston said. “It implies we are doing first-grade research and we are having fresh ideas on the teaching end that are designed to really engage the students and give them the learning experience they should be getting. All of the people around us helped us out and helped us excel in our research and teaching.”
Before coming to JMU in 2015, Raston lived in Australia and taught general chemistry through a fellowship. After working in the chemistry department at JMU for three years, he decided to follow his colleagues suggestions of applying for the award. The application required a letter of support from Watkins and a project proposal incorporating potential plans to follow through using the grant.
“As far as the research goes, I’ve been kind of pushing the limits in terms of understanding chemistry at the fundamental level,” Raston said. “Before JMU, I had experience teaching in Australia, in coming here to the chemistry department active learning is really appreciated and emphasized and it had a big influence on me and my teaching style. It helped me to grow and to show good qualities that led me to getting this awesome award.”
Raston hopes to draw attention and focus to atmospheric chemistry by facilitating discovery-based approaches in chemistry labs. The grant will allow him to travel nationally with students to attend conference meetings with other Cottrell Scholars to discuss research. He will then be able to bring back information to JMU and buy and create instruments for experiments.
“Paul is an atmospheric chemist and he works on projects that most people would say can only be done by people that already have Ph.D’s,” Watkins said. “But Paul can take those projects and the data represented in those projects and present them to a first-year student in chemistry in a way that they can understand it ... His enthusiasm is contagious and his excitement for science, for learning permeates everything he does. You can’t meet Paul or Ashleigh and not be excited to be a chemist or to be studying chemistry.”
Raston hopes to acquire software with features that help students efficiently conduct experiments, or CUREs (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences), which allow failure to ensure they get the results they need. In doing this, he aims to pull students away from the habit of conducting ‘cookbook’ experiments of following previously attempted trials and reproducing them and pushing them toward research of their own.
“Paul has been working with undergraduates before he even got to James Madison,” Baber said. “He really showed dedication to educating undergraduates... He’s got students in the lab, an instrument up and running, he’s publishing papers and getting students to publish papers. The research he’s doing is just outstanding, it’s an extraordinary opportunity for the students.”
The award has provided the JMU chemistry and biochemistry department with higher visibility in the research and education field. Baber is currently working with University of Texas at Austin and Raston has worked in Georgia with students conducting research. They plan on expanding this visibility and further strengthening the program to create a diverse and strong base for the undergraduates.
“It’s been very well-deserved,” Baber said. “We all work so hard to give our undergraduates the best chance to conduct research and give them a little glimpse of what real life is going to be like after college … To have this recognition, that’s national recognition that’s two years in a row, is going to help to put JMU chemistry on the map a little bit more. I am so thrilled that we’ve been able to get it two years in a row and we’re gonna hope to keep that running as long as we can.”
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