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Students (and the occasional bug) at the center of FLC undergraduate research

Students (and the occasional bug) at the center of FLC undergraduate research

Ted Bartlett sits at a lab computerWhen Ted Bartlett arrived as a faculty new hire at Fort Lewis College in 1978, the leaders of FLC’s Chemistry Department were eager to incorporate undergraduate research into the curriculum. Bartlett’s framework for student-faculty research has since been woven into the fibers of every discipline on campus and any FLC student experience. It also helped shape FLC’s Chemistry Department into one of the premier college laboratories in the country, according to National Science Foundation rankings. It all started with a pesky boll weevil.

The 1970s

Since the early 1960s, Ted Bartlett had been eyeballs deep in microscopes and spectrometers. He’d earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Stanford University and finished his post-doctoral research at Columbia University in 1971. But his legacy wouldn’t materialize through groundbreaking solo research; his grandest opus would instead manifest through collaborative research with undergraduate students.   

“Research in the organic lab is what I grew to love as an undergraduate and a grad student,” Bartlett said. “Up until teaching, I’d done it all by myself. It turns out that having students work with me is what I loved most.”

In 1972, Bartlett accepted his first teaching job at Hamline University, a private liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he also received his first-ever research grant. These funds would unwittingly set the stage for a 40-years-long research project focused on the boll weevil.

Textbook page about boll weevil and chemical structure of grandisol pheromeThe boll weevil was introduced from Mexico to the United States in the 1890s. The insect was responsible for destroying up to 50% of cotton crops across the South over eight decades. In 1970, scientists discovered grandisol, a pheromone structure, that when commercialized, could be used to trap boll weevils and arm farmers with an invaluable agricultural weapon. But first, someone needed to figure out how to synthesize the pheromone.

“That was kind of a liberal idea at the time,” Bartlett said. “It looked like a good target for people who wanted to be well-known. I thought I could be one of those people.”

Grandisol contains a cyclobutane ring. Recreating the delicate structure requires a complex stereoselective synthesis, that involves potentially dangerous chemical reactions. Bartlett peered into the possibilities and pulled students into the curious process.

“We knew what didn’t work,” Bartlett said. “That’s the way organic synthesis research always goes: you start out and learn that there is nothing in the literature that says it wouldn’t work. It’s a new idea, so you just keep going until you find something that works.” 

In 1975, Bartlett moved to Collegeville, Minnesota, for a teaching job at St. John’s University. He took his wife, Margaret, their three daughters, and his boll weevil research project. After his three-year contract ended with SJU, Bartlett received a call from Jim Mills, Fort Lewis College’s Chemistry Department chair at the time. Mills and the other department co-chairs, John Ritchey and Doreen Mehs, had built a solid foundation for FLC’s Chemistry Department. Ready to emphasize undergraduate research, they knew Bartlett had the experience to help the program get to the next level. In 1978 (ironically, the same year a successful boll weevil insecticide hit the market), he accepted FLC’s offer and moved to Durango with his family.

“I was sure this was the right place for me,” he said. “Other colleges were fine private liberal arts schools, but most students were headed for medical school; they wanted the research experience for their resumes but found the work uninspiring. Once I got to FLC, I thought, ‘these were different students.’”

The 1980s

Two students in lab coats and goggles smile in a chemistry labDespite the reality that the discovery of a synthesized pheromone wouldn’t be as commercially consequential as Bartlett initially thought, the boll weevil project still translated well as a teaching tool. So, Bartlett converted the project into a paid summer internship and expected the best students to apply. While some students were strong in organic chemistry, others had “a spark” that Bartlett noticed in the laboratory. He took extra steps to connect with those students.

“I picked out students who would benefit from the research experience,” he explained. “I wasn’t trying to make academics out of them, but it turns out that some of them were really good at academics, too.”

For his summer of 1981 intern class, he recalled a standout student, Christopher Switzer (ATT ’79-82), was surprisingly missing from the applications.

“He told me that he didn’t think he was ‘good enough,’” Bartlett said. “He wasn’t getting all A’s on his exams, but I knew that he was good in the lab.”

Bartlett had limited funds for hiring students. He knew he couldn’t expect Switzer to stay and do unpaid research at school over the summer, so he advocated for an extra internship spot. Bartlett secured the funding from the College, and Switzer joined the boll weevil study. Switzer would earn his Ph.D. in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University and become a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Riverside.

“Students would start out with no idea that they could accomplish anything,” Bartlett said. “Even though they might have been fairly average students in the organic, analytical, or math courses, their interest grew in the lab, and then they’d start coming up with ideas to go beyond what I’d started with them. I would see them develop into independent, thoughtful research students. That’s what kept me going.”

“If you told a first-year student what they’d be doing in 10 years, they’d say, ‘no way,’” said Ron Estler, who taught Chemistry at FLC from 1982 to 2016. “When you set the bar higher than what students are comfortable with, they can show you what they’re capable of. They never know they can give you excellence unless you ask them for it.”

Ron Estler dresses up like Ted Bartlett, with a plaid button up and vest, glasses, and a fake beardEstler, a physical chemist, received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and did his post-doctoral work at Columbia and Stanford universities. Before he got the invitation to teach at FLC, he taught chemistry at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where his smallest first-year class had 535 students.  

“I wanted to see if I could bring the quality of a private liberal arts college into a public liberal arts college,” Estler said. “The quality of chemistry at FLC was head and shoulders above other schools. With Ted getting hired in 1978 and me in 1982, that added extra emphasis to the direction the department wanted to take; the Chemistry Department at FLC was instrumental in bringing undergraduate research into the undergraduate curriculum. The rest is history.”

Estler said projects like Bartlett’s boll weevil pheromone study were integral in helping establish FLC’s Chemistry Department as one of the top-ranked programs in the country. 

“It’s rare that anything works the first time you try it,” Estler said. “You learn to deal with failure. You learn perseverance. When you fail, you cry for two days, but then you get back to trying. Failure can make success even sweeter. It’s an important lesson for research and life in general.”

For one of Bartlett’s research students, Michael Begaye (Chemistry, ’86), the lesson would come slowly and leave a lasting impression. After serving in the U.S. Navy, Begaye moved from his home on the Navajo Nation to Durango for college. But Begaye feared presenting in class so much that he quit going. He said his professors encouraged him to return and finish what he’d started.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to go into until I got in Dr. Bartlett’s organic chemistry class,” Begaye said. “I was amazed. It just clicked in my head. It wasn’t hard for me but more like an everyday thing.” 

In 1984, Begaye applied for Bartlett’s boll weevil research project, which Begaye said was game-changing for his life’s trajectory. He received his master’s in physical organic chemistry from the University of New Mexico. In 2008, he became the first Native American to earn a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry. Since then, Begaye has worked at Diné College on the Shiprock campus and plans to retire in 2023.

“I used to watch Dr. Bartlett and think I wanted to be like him, like a professor teaching these classes,” Begaye said. “He got me on the road to chemistry. I didn’t think I would go this far, but working my way through the education process, I realized I could do it. All of my professors at FLC were excellent: Bartlett, Estler, Mills, Mehs, Ritchey. All of them gave me the skills I needed to graduate and go on. They all had faith in me. They saw something in me.”

The 1990s

“Ted was able to get non-traditional students with no scientific background and expose them to opportunity,” said Javier Read de Alaniz (Chemistry, ’99). “It’s classic Fort Lewis: how faculty make problems accessible, so students can get hooked and dig in.”

When Read de Alaniz moved to Durango in 1996 from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to run cross country for FLC, he did not understand how science could be a viable career. His summer internship experience with Bartlett’s boll weevil challenge changed that perspective.

“Randomly, who got me into this was my dad, who grew up in Texas and would trap boll weevils to prevent them from eating the crops,” Read de Alaniz said. “That helped me connect with the purpose of this study. That, and it was the first time I could get paid and not do construction or work fast food.”

Andrea Jones and Ted Bartlett stand in front of research poster at a symposiumEvery summer, Bartlett’s new student researchers would come in and start the synthesis from the beginning. The interns would learn how to set up the reactions, analyze them, and consider what they didn’t know about solving the problems.

“That’s research on a project this long: you keep proposing things until you find out it doesn’t work,” Bartlett said. “Each step along the way, you learn something. If you thought that it wasn’t ever going to work, you’d stop.”

Read de Alaniz described it as a “puzzle,” where students got to design experiments to test new ideas. They had 10 weeks to advance the project or not. When Read de Alaniz came into the labs in the summer of 1999, the project was two steps away from completion. Read de Alaniz said he took it one step further but did not finish it.

After graduating from FLC with a Chemistry degree in 1999, Read de Alaniz went to graduate school at Colorado State University and earned his Ph.D. in 2006 before conducting his post-doctoral research at the University of California, Irvine. He now works as a chemistry professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of NSF BioPolymers, Automated Cellular Infrastructure, Flow, and Integrated Chemistry Materials Innovation Platform (BioPACIFIC MIP).

“My summer research with Ted solidified me in chemistry and inspired me to go into the career I’m in now,” Read de Alaniz said. “It’s still the fondest research experience of my life to this day. It exposed me to a world that I had no idea about. Now that I’m a faculty member and can look back on what Ted was doing, I always make a point to focus on undergraduate research.”

Two years after Read de Alaniz graduated from FLC, Adam Goldblum (Chemistry and Biochemistry, ’02) sat in Bartlett’s organic chemistry class with 40 other students.

“I had as much access to Ted as I needed,” Goldblum said. “There was something so infectious about his curiosity.”

Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with 10 doctors in his family, Goldblum planned to attend medical school. Goldblum knew multiple students hadn’t gotten to the last step with enough material to investigate. He made that his goal for the two summers he applied for Bartlett’s boll weevil brainteaser.

“The challenge was most exciting for me,” Goldblum recalled. “If you were doing something that had been done before, then it wouldn’t be research. Research is all puzzles, intriguing puzzles that you could find out and answer with tools that were available. Ted let me have free reign right at a time when I was so excited about organic chemistry. It opened my mind to the systems and cells of everything.”

During the last week of his 2000 summer internship, Goldblum had accomplished a good yield of the final compound. He ran it through the nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer (NMR), which determines the molecular structure. The image lined up, but Goldblum wasn’t convinced it was good enough. He called Bartlett, who encouraged him to look more closely or do it again.

“He bet me a four-pack of Guinness that I had it,” Goldblum laughed.

Goldblum ran the reaction again and got an even higher yield. He peered at the NMR spectrum and smiled. He had done it. Goldblum had completed the final functionality of the intricate molecule. He drove to the gas station at the bottom of Front Hill, bought some Guinness, and arrived at Bartlett’s house, grinning from ear to ear.

“I can almost still see [Goldblum] walking up the sidewalk carrying beer, quietly handing the NMR to me,” Bartlett said. “It was a mix of relief and elation. For all the years before, we hadn’t gotten that result. And then, all of a sudden, it just burst out.”

NMR report“I didn’t say one thing; I just handed him the beer with the NMR rolled up in it,” Goldblum said. “I was looking at him looking at the NMR with the biggest smile on his face. He looked so happy and proud. I was super excited, and I don’t think I stopped smiling for three days. I got this thing that so many very talented people had worked on. It was an impactful moment for me. It gave me confidence in moving forward. And the process going through it made me a better scientist.”

Nearly 30 years after Bartlett’s grandisol synthesis began, Goldblum presented the successful synthesis at the American Chemical Society’s National Meeting in Orlando, Florida. Goldblum also received the NSF-Research Experiences for Undergraduates fellowship at the University of Connecticut, where he says students came from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and other prestigious research institutions.

“None of them had the research experience that I had,” Goldblum said. “They didn’t have access to their professors, even in their lab courses. Fort Lewis College made that possible. I was positioned with real strength. I had so much experience. And it all started with Ted and the fact that you can learn all you want, read and memorize all you want, but research is a skill and an application of all your learnings. That was such an important part of my education at FLC and invaluable to the steps I took beyond school.”

Goldblum forewent graduate school and launched his career as a medicinal chemist in drug biotechnology. He moved to San Francisco, California, and was hired based on his prolific research experience. 

“Within one year, I was promoted to the same level as chemists who held master’s degrees, and a year after that, I was promoted to the Ph.D. level,” said Goldblum, senior director of business development at EcoTec. “Two years after that, I led a team of 30 Ph.D.-holding researchers. Thanks to all the research I’d done at FLC, it only took a couple of years in the industry before I had the same experience base that most Ph.D.s do.”

In 2005, Bartlett sent a draft of the research to Read de Alaniz. Fifteen years later, during COVID-19 quarantines, Read de Alaniz found the paper in his files. Struck by the generational impact of this single research project, he saw how it spanned nearly three generations. From 1972 till its completion in 2000, Bartlett had conducted real-world research with more than 100 undergraduate college students; at least 70 of these were during his three decades at Fort Lewis College.

Read de Alaniz reached out to his fellow coauthors and learned everyone had the same story: their research alongside Bartlett was one of the most profound experiences of their careers.

“It set them off on their trajectories,” Read de Alaniz said. “At the end of the day, any one of those coauthors could probably make that molecule in a summer. And Ted could’ve, too, if he wanted to. Instead, he used it as a training ground to get students interested in chemistry. I’m in awe of the patience it took for Ted focused on the end result but on the possibilities for students, on the patience that he had to allow people not to make progress but become scientists.”

In March 2022, 40 years after the project began, Stereocontrolled Synthesis of Grandisol was published in SYNTHESIS, an international journal devoted to the advancement of the science of chemical synthesis.  Rather than celebrating the publication, Bartlett wanted to focus on how the work had supported undergraduate students.

“Instead of going to a research institution, Ted decided to go to an undergraduate teaching institution, like FLC,” Read de Alaniz said. “Teaching was always at his core. It’s in his blood. He’s always put the students first.”

Research students:

Michael Begaye (Chemistry, ’86), Jeff Bergman (ATT ’82-83), Janet Carlson (Hamline University), Marion Cass (Chemistry, ‘79), Maria Dillon (Chemistry, ’84), Eric Edstrom (Chemistry, ’83), Derek Fischer (Chemistry, ’01), Greg Glatzmaier (St. John’s University), Adam Goldblum (Chemistry-Biochemistry, ’02), Cynthia Hines (Hamline University), John Holloway (Chemistry, ‘83), Gregory Luedtke (Chemistry, ’88), Margo Lunsford (Chemistry, ‘98), Steve Ottersberg (Chemistry – Biochemistry, ’96), Gregory Paneitz (Chemistry, ’03), Javier Read de Alaniz (Chemistry, ’99), Jarral Ryter (Chemistry, ‘90), Kendal Ryter (Chemistry, ’92), Ray Sandoval (Chemistry, ’95), Mark Schultz (ATT ’74-75), Donnie Shepard (Chemistry, ’00), Chad Stearman (Chemistry, ’99), Christopher Switzer (ATT ‘79-82).

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