Opportunities Abound: CHOPs and PGSEC Programs Expose Undergraduates to Graduate School Life

CHOPs and PGSEC Graduate Poster Session 2012

In our highly connected, globalized world, science thrives on a diversity of perspectives.  To help draw these wide-ranging perspectives to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Department of Chemistry launched the Chemistry Opportunities (CHOPs) program in 2012. The program seeks to recruit more under-represented and minority students to the department.

This year, CHOPs will run in tandem with Partners for Graduate School Experience in Chemistry (PGSEC), a program created to expose college juniors and seniors — especially those who might not have considered graduate-level education — to chemistry graduate programs.

The joint CHOPs and PGSEC graduate school preview weekend, from Oct. 17-19, will provide participants an expense-paid visit to the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry. The programs are a joint effort of Dr. Cheri Barta, undergraduate research coordinator; Dr. Desiree Bates, computational chemistry leader; and Stephenie Nagle, graduate program coordinator. Participating college students will meet with faculty and current graduate students, tour the facilities, explore Madison, and solicit advice on preparing competitive graduate school applications.

Although the two programs are similar and run during a shared preview weekend, they are geared toward two different groups of students. CHOPs participants already intend to apply for graduate school, and they are good candidates for the rigorous UW-Madison graduate program in chemistry. On the other hand, PGSEC participants may not know what graduate school is all about, and by participating in the program, they will become familiar with opportunities at the graduate level.  

Last year, PGSEC began as a partnership with Professor Kristy Mardis at Chicago State University, who selected students to participate. Bates says PGSEC will remain a smaller program but may expand to include three to four new partner schools. This year, students are also coming from Northeastern Illinois University.

Meanwhile, CHOPs was established when Professor Silvia Cavagnero proposed a chemistry equivalent of the Biosciences Opportunities (BOPs) program, which began at UW-Madison in 2010. Like BOPs, CHOPs aims to recruit underrepresented and/or minority students to apply to the university.

PGSEC Students and graduate student hosts at the State Capital
2012 CHOPs participants tour the Wisconsin State Capitol building

A participant in last year’s CHOPs program, Wen Chyan says that the program “provided a unique opportunity to get to know the chemistry department before the application process, which was absolutely invaluable.” Chyan discovered during the CHOPs preview weekend that his research interest in chemical biology was a good match with the research in the department. “Without CHOPs,” he says, “I likely would not have come or perhaps even applied to UW-Madison for graduate school.”

CHOPs nearly doubled in size this year, growing from 14 students in 2012 to 26 students in 2013. Among the 14 CHOPs participants from last year, 11 were college seniors who were eligible to apply to UW-Madison for graduate school. Ten of these students applied, five were accepted into the graduate program in chemistry, and four of the five students enrolled.

Daniel Hinton, who also participated in last year’s program, similarly credits CHOPs as the main reason he came to UW-Madison. He and Chyan will join the other CHOPs graduate students to welcome the new participants at the upcoming preview weekend.

With the success of both CHOPs and PGSEC, organizers say they hope to secure longer-term funding for both programs. Currently, the Department of Chemistry supports both programs, and CHOPs has received support from Procter & Gamble and Dow by applying annually for corporate grants.