PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Lori Isom

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Lori Isom is Assistant Professor of Chemistry at University of Central Arkansas.

My research focus involves original computational analyses of biomolecular crystallographic structures as well as experimental crystallography including crystal growth, data collection (at Georgia Institute of Technology or University of Arkansas), and structure determination. Integration of research and education is accomplished in my laboratory by developing cognitive and relational skills that promote scientific inquiry, providing heavily interdisciplinary projects that encouraging a broad knowledge-base, and building undergraduate research opportunities that give practical meaning to coursework.

Students learn perseverance leading to the satisfaction found in true scientific inquiry

Undergraduate research in the PI’s lab provides a rich educational experience involving not only lab skills but also indispensable cognitive and relational skills. One of the most satisfying lessons the students learn is also one of the most challenging. This lesson involves the necessary transition from classroom “cookbook” laboratory thinking to mature scientific thinking that involves unanswered questions, problems without obvious solutions, and refinement of experimental design often involving frustrating repetition of experiments that requires perseverance and patience less essential in the classroom. But often something amazing happens as these skills are consistently pursued and the students are encouraged and gently directed. The excitement, anticipation and satisfaction of true scientific inquiry is realized, students are truly engaged, and learning is fueled by curiosity. This experience, more than any other, fosters a life-long interest in science and encourages the pursuit of further education in graduate programs.

The lab’s interdisciplinary environment teaches students to learn from and depend on each other
One of the best educational advantages of this research is the opportunity it provides for interdisciplinary research. A rich education environment involving interdisciplinary interaction between chemistry, biology, and computer science majors expands the knowledge base beyond the development of laboratory and scientific thinking skills obtained in other research labs. The projects are selected and designed such that a student from each major can address a different aspect of that project so that each is engaged in an independent project while also working together, combining their knowledge toward a common goal. For example, project 1 involves the investigation of the effects of cation binding on DNA structure by analyzing coordinates of DNA/protein complexes. A biology major could begin investigating the various structures in the database, applying selection criteria, and categorizing the physiological significance of each complex, making sure that one particular type of protein is not over represented in the analysis. A computer science major (or biology or chemistry major with computational interests) would begin writing programs to analyze the selected structures. The chemistry major could then lead the data analysis and molecular visualization aspect of the project. All of these students decide upon specific selection criteria, design program structure, develop data analysis tools, and interpret results. In this way, the students work on scientifically important and interesting questions independently, but all work in collaboration to design experiments and develop solutions to address the main question of the project. The PI has found that when students have their own independent question that is addressable within a reasonable time frame and yet are working closely with others toward a common goal, comradery results and the joys and the frustrations of scientific research are shared. The PI has mentored students in all three fields successfully. When such a combination of interests and abilities occurs, exciting relationships develop that encourage mutual respect for the interests and skills of others, as well as a confidence in their own ability to contribute unique skills and perspectives to assist others. These experiences foster interest in attending graduate school and selecting scientific careers.

Undergraduate research gives practical meaning to coursework and encourages strong relationships
Nearly 100% of the students participating in undergraduate research in the UCA chemistry department graduate, as documented more fully in the RUI impact statement. This high percentage is a result of several factors. First, undergraduate research fosters confidence, perseverance and an inquiry-based outlook that enhances the students’ academic experience. Research also provides practical relevance to the material learned in courses, demonstrating that the purpose behind education is much more than just the earning of a degree. Lastly, academic perseverance is strongly encouraged by the development of a close mentoring relationship with the PI and supportive friendships with student colleagues.