A cup of mocha-flavored coffee in the morning and a few episodes of NCIS in between study breaks are two of junior chemistry major Tanya Townsend’s elements to success.
Townsend has been selected as one of four applicants from the College who are nominated for the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship, an award for which she will be competing against approximately 1,200 other aspiring scientists across the United States. It was quite the honor, and winning it would definitely result in a well-deserved Piccolo Trattoria dinner with friends, she says.
Townsend submitted a proposal based on research she had been conducting alongside her faculty mentor, Dr. Abby O’Connor in the chemistry department. The pair – who want to use chemistry to help combat global problems – have been working to form a safer and more eco-friendly hydrogenation process through organometallic catalysis in order to create fuels from plant-based feedstocks without having to use hydrogen gas.
Townsend started this research during TCNJ’s Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience (MUSE) program in the summer of 2015. MUSE is an eight-week summer program where students conduct research full-time in collaboration with TCNJ faculty mentors. With limited experience in inorganic chemistry, Dr. O’Connor originally thought that Townsend would need a significant amount of training. However, to the professor’s pleasant surprise, Townsend quickly caught on and was working independently within a week.
“What sets Tanya apart from other research students that I have mentored is her ability to propose experiments and test hypotheses,” says Dr. O’Connor. She was impressed with how Townsend goes above and beyond the expectation for research hours and takes a deep interest in solving challenging questions. Dr. O’Connor also notes how Townsend “takes initiative in testing out ideas and delivering the results.” Their partnership has proven fruitful as the preliminary results from their research project served as the basis for a proposal Dr. O’Connor recently submitted to the National Science Foundation.
Besides Townsend’s research success, what else has she added to her resume? Another notable achievement of Townsend’s is winning 2nd Place for Undergraduates at the American Chemical Society Northeast Regional Meeting for a research poster she presented. In addition, Townsend serves as the treasurer of TCNJ’s Student Chemist Association and is a member of Gamma Sigma Epsilon, the Chemistry Honor Society. She spends time at the Tutoring Center mentoring chemistry students in her niche subject and also plays the cello in the student orchestra.
Student Chemist Association President Katie Fomchenko describes Townsend as “Incredibly dependable, responsible, and organized when it comes to managing our organization’s finances,” explaining how Townsend is an essential part of the executive board and helps to plan almost every event.
Despite Townsend’s heavy involvement outside the classroom, she spends approximately 25 hours a week on her coursework (not including time in class) and an extra 12 to 18 hours in the lab, which is her favorite part of her studies. “In class, you see everything written out on the board, but in lab you see the practical applications and what everything looks like,” she says.
But what enthralled Townsend to the world of molecules and chemical reactions? “My parents,” she recalls. Townsend’s mother is a chemical engineer, her father works at Honeywell with plastics, and her older brother is in graduate school for physical therapy. Growing up in such a family hooked on math and science definitely encouraged Townsend to break into the field. She admits that having an older brother has always made her competitive. “I was the kind of student in elementary school that when I didn’t get a good grade, I would get upset about it before my parents did,” said Townsend.
Townsend has observed that her chemistry classes at the College have an almost equal male-female ratio; however, past the college level, chemistry is a male-dominated field, and breaking in can be a little intimidating, she admits. However, Townsend is encouraged to see that “A lot of my professors are women, and that’s very motivating for me to see.”
As Townsend finishes up her studies at the College, she is looking into graduate schools to pursue a Ph.D. In the meantime, Townsend will continue her exceptional work as a chemistry student, both in and out of the classroom and lab. She is particularly excited for her biochemistry class where they are working on cloning the genome of different plants.
As for all the current and incoming chemistry students, Townsend’s advice is, “Do as many practice problems as possible. But more importantly, do not fear the professors,” she says, explaining how the School of Science gives off such a family atmosphere. Townsend also gives a tip about where to go when the weather is nice: “The Science Complex fountain. It’s my favorite place on campus.”
– Kelly Corbett
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