It’s all about the chemistry: Daron Janzen


Daron Janzen assists students during a chemistry lab.
Photo by Andy Ferron
Daron Janzen assists students during a chemistry lab.

Daron Janzen, assistant professor of chemistry at St. Kate’s, recently had two of his articles published in the prestigious scientific journal Structure Reports. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is that both of these articles were co-authored with Nyasha Kanganga ’08, who, at the time, was one of Janzen’s students.

Here, Janzen discusses how helping students publish their research is one of the many ways St. Kate’s chemistry faculty prepare young scientists for careers beyond the classroom.

Q. You’ve done quite a bit of research with undergraduate students. What is your background in education?

A. I’m currently in my third year teaching at St. Kate’s. I did my B.S. and my Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Minnesota, under the mentorship of Dr. Kent Mann. We still work together today, and he’s been a great resource for me throughout my career.

I also did a two-year research and teaching post-doctorate at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Before I entered a tenure-track teaching position, I wanted to make sure that teaching was what I wanted to do. I also wanted to get more teaching experience under my belt. The experience at Chattanooga allowed me to do that while working with undergrads on research.

Q. How did that experience help you once you went into teaching?

A. By the time began teaching, I knew what to expect in the classroom, and I was already comfortable teaching. A lot of times, when teachers are thrust into the classroom with a full teaching load, they don’t always have time to think about their teaching methods. At Tennessee, I got my feet wet and was able to benefit from the mentorship of veteran professors. Now, when I enter a classroom, I’m able to adapt my skills to my students’ needs.

Q. You recently published two articles based on your research in the scientific journal Structure Reports. What were these articles about?

The articles were about Tetra-n-butylammonium molecules. Nyasha Kanganga, a student of mine who graduated last spring, grew crystals on the molecules, and from these crystals we were able to obtain structural information about the molecules using a method called X-ray crystallography. The two articles are X-ray crystal structures Nyasha prepared in the summer of 2007. It was very important to me to get these articles published so Nyasha would have them when she applied to graduate schools this year.

I should add that the grant to pay Nyasha for her research came from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant called the “Research Site for Educators in Chemistry.” The grant provided us with access to facilities at the University of Minnesota and we were able to use their equipment to record the data for the articles. While at the University of Minnesota, I also had the opportunity to collaborate with my mentor, Kent Mann.

Q. Is it typical for undergraduates to be published in academic journals?

Nyasha is the first St. Kate’s student who has authored an article with me. To date, I’ve co-authored articles with at least 10 undergraduates. That’s not common, though. A lot of those came from my post-doctoral experience at Tennessee and my work at Minnesota.

My goal is that all students I work with will be coauthors on publications of some kind. Anything I do needs to have a component that can be published — that’s the nature of research. The types of things I’m interested in I can’t do by myself, so I’ve enjoyed collaborating with others. In addition to the University of Minnesota and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, I’ve worked with people from Clemson University, the University of Minnesota, Morris, and Minnesota State University, Mankato, as well as international collaborators from Japan and Spain. All have brought different skills to tell a better and deeper story. More brains at the table are always better than one.

Q. Are you currently working on any research projects with students?

Right now I have a large grant from 3M, so this summer I’ll have both a returning student and a new student doing research with me. We’ll be at the University of Minnesota researching molecular materials for electronic applications.

In March, Kelsey Skodje and Sarah Sullivan, two students who worked with me in the summer of 2008, will be traveling to Utah for the national meeting of the American Chemical Society. They’ll be presenting their work at a 20,000-person conference. This is very rare for students in our department, and it’s a great opportunity.

Q. How does St. Kate’s chemistry program prepare students for real-world application of their skills?

For one, we’re very concerned with helping students meet their goals. Students’ needs vary greatly, and I think we all agree on the importance of helping students figure out how we can help them meet their goals. We’re successful in helping them get a solid academic background and preparing them for the next step, through internships with companies such as 3M or undergraduate research at St. Kate’s and other institutions.

Thanks to the NSF grant, St. Kate’s is able to offer students access to world-class research facilities and equipment. Working at the University of Minnesota, students get to see what a research institution is like, working side-by-side with graduate students using million-dollar instruments. There’s no substitute for being in that environment, especially for students interested in graduate school.

Q. What do you offer for students interested in going on to teach science?

The Chemistry Department has created a seminar course aimed at developing chemistry majors’ speaking abilities and teaching students how to show and explain information. Students who have taken this seminar have come back to us and said, “We’re glad you made us take this. Now we’re prepared to talk to people about science and chemistry.”

We’ve had a good record working on curriculum grants. Several faculty members, including Department Chair Gina Mancini-Samuelson, have written grants for the implementation of a new curriculum in our classrooms. We want to make sure our curriculum and equipment are modern and experiences in the classroom are relevant to students’ careers.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded the St. Kate’s chemistry faculty a three-year grant to expand learning opportunities for students. Interested in learning more about the College of St. Catherine’s chemistry department? Here’s a story about students.

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