On Campus: Harper Chemistry Program Allows for Advanced, Original Research

Harper College's chemistry research program is a rarity among community colleges, offering the opportunity for graduate-level research right on the Palatine campus.

Ask Jim Tufts what he’s been working on in Harper College’s chemistry labs for two years, and he’ll give you the basics: It has to do with polymers and hydrogen storage.

The rest, he concedes, might be a little tough to explain unless you’re a researcher like he is.

The 23-year-old Palatine resident is one of a growing number of participants in Harper’s chemistry research program, which allows select fellows the opportunity to try their hand at graduate-level research before they leave Harper’s campus – and even before they finish their first year.

“It’s real research,” Tufts says of the students' projects, which over the years have include analyses of dietary supplements and blood-clotting enzymes and an examination of the quality of water in local creeks, reservoirs and ponds, among other things.  “We are really furthering science.”

The program is a rarity among community colleges nationwide, but Tufts says it shouldn’t be.

Beyond exposing him to advanced science that spurred his desire to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry, Tufts says Harper’s program – which he pursued upon the urging of a professor – has changed his life.

This fall, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to tell his story at a Capitol Hill hearing aimed at urging lawmakers to fund additional community college research programs like Harper’s, which supporters say encourage student success and are vital to the nation’s overall success and global competitiveness.

 “It’s about more than pursuing science. It’s about creating confidence,” Tufts said. “Nothing has given me more purpose, and I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without this experience.”

Harper launched its chemistry research program in 2005 with help from a National Science Foundation grant. Since then, nearly 75 students have participated. All have gone on to pursue four-year degrees in chemistry or related disciplines, amassing $300,000 in scholarships along the way.

Research fellows, chosen by professors following an application process, spend hours in Harper labs throughout the semester. Their summers, which afford them the opportunity to take on additional research stints on the campuses of colleges like DePaul and Illinois State, often are more intense.

But the fellows, Tufts among them, say the payoff is worth it.

Tufts came to Harper several years after his Palatine High School graduation, after deciding the career path he was on – he’d started his own software company – wasn’t what he wanted to do for life. A chemistry professor he encountered in his initial term on campus encouraged him to try Harper’s research program, and it wasn’t long before he was hooked. He never looked back.

Today, Tufts has completed two summer research internships and plans to transfer to a university to complete his bachelor’s degree, the next step toward his eventual goal of earning that Ph.D.

The College now is working to spread research beyond chemistry, and potentially beyond the sciences.

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