Chemistry degree now open for enrollment

Photo credit: Jian Bautista

The Department of Chemistry is offering a chemistry degree with an emphasis in biochemistry for the first time since the degree was suspended in 2014. Chair of the chemistry department, Colin McGill, said a shortage of faculty in 2014 made it hard to offer the courses necessary for a chemistry degree. Now, McGill says the department has hired three new tenure-track professors that make it possible to teach upper division chemistry courses.

“It’s really a great match for students who are tracking towards professional degrees in medicine and dentistry and veterinary and pharmacy,” McGill said. “They need a lot of the classes for the professional entrance exams, and they also need a lot of the classes that we offer as upper division electives. We had 108 majors when it was last open and a majority of those were biochemistry options and a majority of those have professional aspirations in fields outside chemistry.”

Enrollment into the degree opened at the beginning of fall semester and McGill said that approximately 30 students have enrolled thus far. McGill said he thinks some students may be hesitant about enrolling because of negative perceptions about the chemistry department.

“I think the hardest part is the perceived instability surrounding chemistry. There’s —because of all the issues of losing faculty and not being able to replace faculty quick enough and not being able to offer some classes because of that. And the closure of access to the degree,” McGill said. “There’s just a lack of confidence surrounding it, and that was a bit of a perfect storm of retirements and some attrition to other institutions, and one of the realities is filling the faculty positions and positions in general in Alaska is really tricky.”

Patrick Tomco is one of the new tenure-track assistant professors of chemistry. He said the reopening of the chemistry degree will be attractive to UAA students who wanted to be chemistry majors while the degree was unavailable.

“I think there were a lot of students that wanted to get as many chemistry classes as they could but they enrolled in the degree program closest to it, but now that there is chemistry available, they’re jumping back in,” Tomco said.

Tomco has also dealt with negative perceptions about the chemistry program.

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“When the program was suspended a few years ago, a big reason is we had a lot of faculty attrition and we weren’t able to offer all the classes students would need in order to get a degree in chemistry,” Tomco said. “So it really wasn’t fair to take students on and not give them an opportunity to graduate in four years. Now that we have more faculty hires now, we have the stability here, so now we wouldn’t open it up unless we thought students could absolutely get it done in four years if they had all the prerequisites.”

McGill said the biochemistry-focused degree will be attractive to students who want to go into medical careers. Alexis Harvey plans on going to medical school after she receives her undergraduate degree, and she is considering changing her degree from pre-nursing to biochemistry.

“A lot of the courses that the degree requires kind of aligns with not only medical school requirements but also would help me with my MCAT prep,” Harvey said. “I think when you have a subject like chemistry or biology that’s so — I mean a lot of it is memorization, it’s not very innate in nature — you can’t just go through it and solve a problem like you can with math… Reiterating that information by taking chemistry courses every semester is something that will kind of ingrain it in you. When you get to that MCAT, if you’re not fully prepared by a MCAT course that you’ve taken, relying on that previous knowledge that you have instilled in you is a plus.”

McGill said the department is now staffed to the point where they can offer a biochemistry degree, but that degrees in classical chemistry are still out of reach because of the small size of the chemistry department.

“If we get our major numbers up back into that 100s zone I could see in the not distant future looking for those other components,” McGill said. “But with a small department, we have enough balls in the air where we need to make sure we are attending to all of those things before we — you want to balance growing quickly with making sure you’re not going too quickly.”