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Summer college program offers uncommon learning experience for undergrads

If asked how he spent his summer vacation, Devon Cocuzza would have to throw around words like polymorphism and co-crystals, the kind of scientific terms that most people don’t encounter every day (if ever).

Polymorphism refers to a substance’s ability to exist in different forms, and it must be controlled in pharmaceuticals to help keep active ingredients at their most stable and soluble form. This is necessary to ensure that the ingredients in their safest and most effective state.

Cocuzza spent weeks experimenting with ways to control polymorphism in pyrazinecarboxamide (PCA), an antibacterial agent used to treat tuberculosis. He wasn’t working in an industry or government research lab, however. Instead, Cocuzza, a junior at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), was conducting the research as part of the MUSE program, an intensive academic experience offered every summer at the college in Ewing, New Jersey. Cocuzza was one of five Chemistry and Biology students whose participation was funded by a grant from Bristol Myers Squibb.

MUSE – which stands for Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience – began in 2004 with a small number of students from the School of Science. In subsequent years, the program expanded to include TCNJ’s six other academic schools: Arts and Communication; Business; Culture and Society; Education; Engineering; and Nursing, Health and Exercise Science.

During the most recent summer, 87 students and 44 faculty members participated, representing 20 different programs and all seven academic schools, says Dr. Janet Morrison, an associate professor in the Department of Biology and director of the MUSE Program.

TCNJ undergrads who participate in the program spend eight weeks living in the same dormitory while they conduct research or engage in other creative activities in mentored collaboration with faculty members.

The housing arrangements and a series of group activities – recreational, social and academic – are intended to build a sense of community among the students and faculty from diverse schools.

Morrison said the program reflects a larger institutional commitment to promote student-faculty collaboration and find meaningful research opportunities for undergraduates – something an undergraduate-focused college like TCNJ is well-equipped to do.

Undergraduates at larger research universities who participate in research projects will often find themselves working on basic tasks while collaborating with graduate students, Morrison says, while at TCNJ, the students work in close collaboration with their faculty mentors. They are encouraged to bring their own ideas to each project and are given opportunities to help design studies, interpret data and co-author reports, Morrison says.

In the sciences, MUSE project ideas stem from the faculty members’ current research pursuits and are designed to produce new knowledge and advance the progress of science, she says.

For Cocuzza, the research mostly involved developing and testing co-crystals as a method of controlling polymorphism in PCA. (Co-crystals are crystals that contain two different molecules, often joined by hydrogen bonds.)

It was a new experience on many levels. Cocuzza had not worked on an original research project before and was not familiar with chemical engineering, the research interest of his faculty mentor, Dr. Heba Abourahma.

Cocuzza says that he and other students mentored by Dr. Abourahma met with her daily during the summer to discuss their progress, results and what steps should be taken next. He relied on her heavily at first, he says, but, as he grew more familiar with the work, he was able to be more independent and exercise his own critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

With the summer program over, Cocuzza has continued working on the project with Dr. Abourahma during the current academic year. He expects to keep working on the research until he graduates.

“She always gave us enough liberty to be working by ourselves but also was a resource when we had questions and needed direction,” Cocuzza says. “I am learning now that we were kind of spoiled in the summer because Dr. Abourahma could work exclusively with us, as opposed to during the academic year, when she becomes very busy preparing for classes.”

For more information on the MUSE Program, visit http://fscollab.pages.tcnj.edu/muse/