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SUNY Cortland Introduces Biochemistry Major

 SUNY Cortland Introduces Biochemistry Major

08/26/2013 

Alexander Meyers ’13 arrived at SUNY Cortland as a freshman wondering whether he should major in biology or chemistry.

Fortunately, by his senior year he no longer had to choose.

Instead, Meyers accepted his diploma during the 2013 Commencement ceremonies as the College’s first biochemistry graduate.

“With the direction I’m trying to go in with my education, this degree really gave me some tools I wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Meyers of Morrisville, N.Y., who is currently applying around the country to big-name graduate programs in biochemistry and molecular biology.

“I think my career is going to be research-based,” Meyers said. “I’m going to be a professor somewhere and do research or I’m going to work in the private sector. I hope the graduate work I do will steer me into the direction I want to be going.”

Meyers is exactly the kind of student SUNY Cortland faculty members had in mind when they designed the new major, said Frank Rossi, an associate professor in the College’s Chemistry Department and one of the educators who helped create the biochemistry focus.

 “We kind of looked out for Al from the beginning as someone who would be interested in this major,” Rossi said.  “We were fortunate to get approval from the state in time for him to graduate with it.”

Meyer’s biochemistry sheepskin is unique from that of the chemistry major who attains a minor in biology or a dual degree in both disciplines.

“When we say biochemistry, we mean chemistry as applied to solving biological problems,” explained Rossi, whose training was in organic chemistry but whose academic interest is in the nexus between chemistry and biology.

The entire Chemistry Department was involved in creating the biochemistry major, working closely with Biological Sciences Department faculty who supported the process.

“It’s a good major with an interdisciplinary approach to science,” said Chemistry Department Chair Gregory Phelan.

The proposal wended its way through the College’s School of Arts and Sciences and its Division of Academic Affairs, past external reviewers who were colleagues from other institutions, and then was finally approved by the State University of New York administration. The degree became available in Spring 2012.

“This was a no-brainer,” Phelan said. “We had students who were interested in it. Having it is a good prep for medical school and offering it is part of a long trend in chemistry in particular. At some colleges there are whole departments in biochemistry.”

SUNY Cortland alumna and Academic Hall of Fame member Eileen K. Jaffe ’75, a biochemist and senior member and professor in the Fox Chase Cancer Center, also encouraged the College to add the major.

The College has committed substantial resources to support the new major.

Patricia Conklin and Alexander Meyers
Alexander Meyers '13, the College's inaugural biochemistry major, is shown with one faculty mentor, Associate Professor of Biological Science Patricia Conklin, during his research in Summer 2012.

Katherine Hicks will join the Chemistry Department faculty this fall as the College’s first assistant professor specializing in biochemistry. Next spring, when the science building Bowers Hall reopens a wing that is currently under construction, students will have access to a biochemistry-teaching laboratory.

According to Rossi, the new major is the natural route for a host of in-demand careers. Several juniors who aspire to become physicians, pharmacists or biological scientists have declared they plan to become the second generation at SUNY Cortland to earn this baccalaureate degree next spring. Additional prospective careers for biochemistry graduates include researchers in the pharmaceutical and food industries.

The biochemistry course sections are expected to attract students from other science disciplines offed at the College, including chemistry, adolescent education: chemistry, and the interdisciplinary program in environmental science.

“In the 2006-07 academic years, we started to survey other biochemistry programs out there, both in SUNY and non-SUNY, to come up with a list of courses that should be required for the major,” Rossi said.

From his earliest years, Meyers completed specialized chemistry and biology courses suitable to the biochemistry curriculum in anticipation of the new degree offering.

“I think the only time you would take those classes is if you were a biochemistry major,” Meyers said. “The farthest you would go otherwise would be to take a course in cell biology in your sophomore year. I studied biology right up through my senior year. It really prepared me.”

Biochemistry is a profoundly research-oriented major. Students enrolled in it are expected to conduct laboratory investigations in both disciplines.

That’s critical even if the graduate never plans to work in corporate or institutional research, according to Rossi.

“I think the opportunity to get a student in the laboratory who wants to go into teaching is great,” he said. “We wouldn’t have a physical education coach who didn’t go out on the field, who just taught from theory. It’s the same thing with science. Your perspective is about finding information, not knowing information. It’s a method that’s about trying to figure out what’s going on. I would like to see us expand research opportunities for students who want to teach.”

By his senior year Meyers, like most Chemistry Department majors, had ample chemistry research under his belt. He and Phelan, whose academic focus is on bringing chemistry research findings to the marketplace, collaborated on a project that combined technology and innovation.

Then in summer 2012, Meyers joined the research lab of Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Patricia Conklin. Together they traveled to Exeter University in Great Britain to conduct original, basic research with one of Conklin’s collaborators investigating how plants produce vitamin C.

His expenses to participate in the scholarly endeavor were supported in part by a SUNY Cortland Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship and a grant from the National Science Foundation. Meyers continued to work on the project during the academic year.

“A lot of the work I did with Dr. Conklin was not what you’d think of as biology, it was biochemical or molecular chemistry,” Meyers said.

“I think the biochemistry degree has prepared me very well for grad school,” Meyers said. “It was a good experience and has served me well in steering me in the direction I will go in the future.”

“We’re trying to create a very well-rounded student: one who will have an impact on others,” Phelan said.