In 1990, students and friends of Illinois chemistry professor and alumnus Harold R. Snyder (BS, ’31) established a fund in his memory to support a summer research program for undergraduates interested in organic chemistry.
Dr. Snyder first came to Illinois as an undergraduate himself, conducting research with Professor R. C. Fuson and receiving his B.S. in 1931. After completing his doctorate at Cornell in 1935, he returned to Illinois in 1937 to join the teaching staff. Together with Fuson, Roger Adams, and Carl "Speed" Marvel, Snyder became part of what was known as the "Big Four" at Illinois, serving as a professor of organic chemistry from 1937 to 1976 and associate dean of the Graduate College from 1960 to 1975.
Today, the Snyder Scholars program honors his legacy by providing outstanding undergraduates with an opportunity to “try out” graduate school the summer before their senior year.
Although the research experience was originally intended for Illinois students, since 1996 it has specifically recruited those from primarily undergraduate institutions—students who, according to Professor Scott Denmark, “are not exposed to the realities of pursuing a PhD in chemistry.”
Denmark, who serves as faculty adviser, has been hosting Snyder Scholars in his research group since 1996. He says that the experience “contributes to the overall mission of inspiring new generations of students to pursue advanced degrees which will collectively advance the discipline.”
It’s no coincidence that Illinois hosts undergraduates from top institutions the summer before they apply to graduate schools. As Denmark states, “attracting the very best students into our graduate program is critical to maintaining our stature as a premier chemistry department.” At ten weeks long, the Snyder experience is a considerably extended version of the traditional campus visit, so it is little wonder that many Scholars choose Illinois for their doctoral research.
Emma Southgate (Sarlah Group) of Half Moon Bay, California, and Kyle Shelton (Mitchell Lab) from Des Moines, Iowa, are two such students.
Southgate, who studies the synthesis of anti-cancer natural products, was a Snyder Scholar in the Hergenrother Lab in 2013 and returned to Illinois in the fall of 2014. She says the program was “a big influence on my decision to come to UIUC; I knew the department and was interested in many of the research programs going on here. I also felt that the students were people I could get along and work with.”
Shelton agrees, stating that his previous time at Illinois assured him he wouldn’t “slip through the cracks.” Shelton, who is just over two years into his PhD program, reflects on his time as a Snyder Scholar: “I was treated like a graduate student, given my own project, and expected to show the level of work ethic and creativity of other students with more experience than me, which was understandably challenging but ultimately rewarding.”
Since the program’s inception, it has served 128 students, most of them non-Illinois undergraduates. The fraction who return for graduate school has recently increased. But, even if they do not, the university still benefits, in Denmark’s view, because the students “share their experience with other undergraduates at their home institution, which benefits our standing, [and] eventually enter the workforce with a positive view of our department.”
The program’s success is possible in large part because of generous alumni support. As department head Martin Gruebele notes, the Snyder fund is “an important piece of the puzzle for maintaining the long term vitality of our research enterprise at all levels, and a model for similar undergraduate research and mentoring programs.”
Bill Pittman (PhD, ’60) is one of the program’s many supporters. Pittman studied with Dr. Snyder from 1957 to 1960, and he jokes that his thesis “could well have been titled ‘Studies in Negative Results.’” But he appreciated Dr. Snyder’s encouragement and support, especially as he switched careers to pursue intellectual property law. Pittman reflects: “Having always been grateful to Dr. Snyder for his efforts on my behalf at UIUC, I contributed to programs bearing his name pretty much from the beginning. I will continue for the rest of my life.”
Gruebele is grateful for the support shown by Pittman and other donors, and he hopes that alumni will continue to step forward to provide undergraduates with a unique research experience and an appealing preview of the PhD program at Illinois.
Learn more about Harold Snyder and the Harold R. Snyder Fund in Organic Chemistry here.