New graduate class helps students improve scientific thinking in organic chemistry

By Josephine Eshon
Science Communicator and Graduate Student (Schomaker Group)

Prof. Zach Wickens
Prof. Zach Wickens

The transition from undergraduate to graduate school can be very challenging. In undergraduate programs, students gain knowledge and apply it to problems in chemistry to which scientists have answers; however in graduate school, students obtain skills on how to solve unresolved problems in chemistry. More importantly, in graduate school, students are required to develop the ability to think scientifically and generate original ideas. For many graduate students, this process can be difficult. This process becomes a reality for third-year organic chemistry students, as they submit and defend original research proposals. To help students tackle this challenge, professor Zachary Wickens at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has developed a new graduate-level class.

Normally consisting of organic chemistry students, the class’ main focus is on learning how to think about problems in organic chemistry that do not have a known answer using mechanisms as tools. Additionally, students are encouraged to use the mechanistic approach developed in the course to solve problems in their own research. Half of the materials taught in the class are on “arrow pushing and proposing reasonable mechanisms,” according to Wickens. The other half of the class is based on physical organic chemistry to evaluate mechanisms. Students quickly understand the golden rule in organic research: “being a good scientist is not just knowing the right answer, it’s a deliberate process of experimentally excluding plausible answers until only one reasonable answer remains.”

In the class, students are put into groups and given a scientific problem. Then, they are encouraged to draw out possible mechanisms and generate experiments that could be used to falsify their proposed mechanism. On top of that, students are given weekly homework and are encouraged to work on it with their group members. Through these exercises, students develop scientific problem solving skills, which are highly valuable for organic graduate students.

At the end of the class, students use these skills on their final projects. Students pick recent publish papers and come up with possible mechanisms to explain the reactions developed in each paper. A paper can be related to the student’s research or a different field of interest. Students are encouraged to come up with possible experiments that they can conduct to distinguish between their proposed mechanisms. These skills are what students are expected to demonstrate in their third-year organic proposals.

Wickens thinks the idea behind the class could be “translated to other paths, such as inorganic and chemical biology.” He believes his first semester of the class went fine; however, he plans to make more changes. The class will be offered in the fall, and he encourages organic students, especially first-year students, to enroll.