In this episode of GradLife 601, Dr. Nancy Caronia speaks with Dr. Brian Popp, an associate professor and the director of Graduate Studies for WVU’s C Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry. Dr. Popp talks about his research into organic, inorganic and computational chemistry and how he uses graduate and undergraduate students in his research.
Welcome to GradLife 601: Research & Beyond, a podcast supported by West Virginia University's Provost's Office of Graduate Education and Life. I'm your host, Dr. Nancy Caronia, a teaching associate professor with the department of English at WVU. Today, I'll be speaking with Dr. Brian Popp, an associate professor and the director of Graduate Studies for WVU’s C Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry. Dr. Popp has received the C Eugene Bennett department of chemistry, outstanding faculty award in 2019 and the national science foundation career award in 2018. He has received numerous NSF grants and his undergraduate and graduate students in the Popp group research lab, go on to prestigious fellowships and grants.
Welcome Dr. Popp. I'm so glad we could find time to chat today. Thank you. Thanks for having me in care today, Nancy. So I wanna dive right in and ask about your three areas of focus in your labs. You have organic inorganic and computational chemistry. Could you talk a bit about how you came to these kinds of research and why you employ both undergraduates and graduate students in your lab?
Yeah, thanks for the question. So as an, as an undergraduate, my very first research experience was actually in analytical chemistry, so completely different. Right. But at the same time, I was in a, I was a junior and, and I was involved in physical chemistry and I really grew to love quantum chemistry. And so ultimately through all of the research that I did as an undergrad, I had experiences being able to do analytical, organic inorganic and P chem.
And when I went to graduate school, I, I decided that inorganic chemistry was my focus, but I really wanted to have computational chemistry or, or physical chemistry as something that, that could kind of supplement the work. And I wanted to be able to be the one to. And so ultimately through my, through my career, I was, I was able to do some biological chemistry.
And when I was hired here at WVU, I was hired as an organic chemist and, and I still bring that inorganic, organic and computational chemistry to bear on, on the research problems. And I find it as a really kind of compelling way to, to really understand our, our research from all perspectives. Interesting.
And so why do you employ both undergraduates and graduate students? Yeah. And, and so this is really from a training perspective, you know, I, I don't think I would be where I'm at today if I hadn't had undergraduate research. And so I I'll start with the undergrads, you know, I'm, I'm dedicated to, to ensuring that undergraduates have, um, uh, many opportunities to kind of explore chemistry and get excited about what their, really, what their interests are, are going to be.
Right. And, and that's what the undergraduate degree is all about is, is identifying. What, what your interests are. And, and so from the undergraduate perspective, it it's all about giving opportunities. Right. And I really like to, to have freshman and sophomores in, in my lab because, you know, they've, they haven't had a whole lot of experience yet.
Yeah. But right. When they, they join the lab, right. I'm able to kind of teach them what they're they need to, to learn and mentor them through a number of years and, and really get them out of. Tuned in to, to what they really, what they are, what they're gonna wanna do long term after, after undergraduate for the graduate students.
It's there's two aspects, right? Of course, graduate students. It's about getting them the professional training that they're gonna need to be successful moving forward. But the undergraduates are actually a really important part of, of the graduate student training experience, right. Because when a graduate student leaves WVU.
They're gonna be expected to, to be an independent scientist, but they're also going to be expected to, to lead right. A research team. Right. And, and having that experience of mentoring leading and, and, you know, and undergraduate, or, or a young graduate student, right. Is really critical to, to that graduate students development.
Right. So it's a kind of a holistic way in which I train my students. So, this is interesting. How do you find those first year students? How do you choose first year students for your Le undergraduate students? I'm curious about that as somebody who works with undergraduate researchers. Yeah. So, so it used to be that I would teach organic chemistry.
And so I would, I would have a handful of sophomores that that would be in my, my group. And so that was great. But over the last, I guess, maybe five or so years, five, six years, the. I guess the undergraduate studies office right. Which was established by the provost and, and my colleague, Michelle, Richard Bab, Dr.
Richard Bab. Yeah. Develop the program. So they, they established this program called the research apprenticeship program. Right. So rap and I've had really great success with that program. And, and it, you know, it's, it's a fantastic program for the freshmen, right. In sort of a low, low risk setting. Yes. Like to get experience with research and a lot of them just, you know, a lot of them that are part of the program really just love it.
Yeah. I that's how I, I, I gather my very small research group is through the rap program and I've had a lot of students that have gone on to either doing honors Excel projects. Mm-hmm or then find themselves. Being able to connect at the graduate level with people because they've already done intensive research and the humanities.
So I like that. We've given a little plug for rap here at WVU. Yeah. Rap is a fantastic program and, and honors Excel. You know, I was, I was one of the first faculty affiliates as part of the honors Excel program. And, and so being able to lead, you know, juniors and seniors in their, in their research and, you know, and in this case, multidisciplinary research, right.
It was great. It was a fantastic exactly. Yeah. I, I like mentoring honors, Excel students. They're really wonderful. Right. And their projects are always creative, you know, because they doing what they want to do. So now. So now I wanna talk about what running a lab means because running a lab takes a great deal of collaboration.
You have the Popp group, but that doesn't mean that it's not collaborative. How do you choose folks to work with you? What qualities are you looking for in undergraduate and graduate student lab researchers? Yeah. So, so there's a, a couple of different things that I'm looking for. So, number one, I'm I really like students who are excited about research, right?
If you're excited and, and you, you bring kind of a, a level of sort of willingness to adapt. And willingness to, to be part of a team, then you're gonna be really successful in, in my group. Right. And so excitement is, is really the, the most important piece. But what's also important to me is, is creating an inclusive environment, which means making sure that, that my group is represented by, you know, as, as, as a diverse group, right.
Of individuals as possible. Right. And so, you know, those, those two things I think are. The excitement piece is, is really dependent on the student. The diversity of the group is, is it, you know, is part of what I'm, you know, tasked what I've tasked myself to, to ensure. Right. But that diversity is really important then from the collaborative aspect.
Right. Because it really is about teamwork, you know? So I think I have eight graduate students and four or five undergraduates right now. Right. And that's a, that's a big team. Yes. Um, and they're the ones that are in the lab every day working. Right. And, you know, I. You know, sitting in my office and writing papers and writing grants.
And, you know, as you said, director of graduate studies and teaching, right. And that's what all faculty are doing. Right. And so it, it really is. It's the graduate students, it's the people in the lab that are doing the day to day work to ensure that everything is, you know, working properly. And I think the way that I, I provide or I, I give the, the graduate students and the undergrads to, for that matter, that level of independence and, and responsibility.
I think that that is also a piece of the training that's important. And they end up leaving here as, as much stronger chemists because of it. Do you have them sit in sometimes on the interview process as you're interviewing possible lab researchers? Well, so, so frankly they're, they're the front line of oh, wow.
Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. So, so normally what happens at least in chemistry is that we admit graduate students to our program. And they don't need to define who they, they don't actually have to have a, a person that they're going to work for. They may have, you know, their, their top choice and the reason they're coming here.
But, but generally speaking, they have two or three people, two or three research groups that they're really interested in. Oh, nice. And they don't need to choose their research group until the end of their first. Here at WVU. So that means that, that they have a, a chance, the graduate students who are the new graduate students have an opportunity to talk to, you know, lots of people in the department, graduate students, undergrads, and faculty, right.
To get a sense of where they really belong. Right. And, and that's, I think. That's one of the most important parts is, is to make sure that they figure out where they belong. Yes. And so actually it's the graduate students during orientation during our, during our, our department picnic and department orientation events that have the first opportunity to start to, to chat with these individuals.
And I always ask, you know, it's, it's usually like the second or third group meeting of the, of the fall, you know, who have you, who have you spoken with? Who do you think is gonna be a, a, a great team member, you know, moving forward. And so, yeah, they're the front, they're the frontline, but that also speaks to the idea of collaboration and independence, which is really wonderful.
So, so along those lines, then what would you say makes a good mentor? It seems to me that giving that level of independence is really important, you know, but, but what do you think that graduate students need to be looking for in a mentor? Yeah, I, and you know, a mentor is going to be someone, or at least this is how I approach mentoring, right.
Is that you have the formal roles of a, of, of an advisor. Right. And sometimes that that's not so much, that's no, that's not fun for the advisor, right. The mentor. Right. But that's a formal role, right? You, you have the role of friend sometimes and you know, the, the person that someone can listen to and. You know, and it kind of work out life issues.
And, and so a, a mentor kind of broadly speaking has to be someone who, who spans all aspects of a, of a mentee's needs. And, and also a good mentor is someone who identifies what the mentee needs. Right. And, and because every mentee is. Right. And, and mentees bring different, different experiences to the group.
Right. And, and so the mentor is someone who, who also tries to optimize the, the mentee's role within a setting. Right. And so kind of identifying the, the best aspects of, of, of what a mentee does, and it enhances, enhances those, those qualities and traits for the group. So on the opposite side of that, what, what makes a good mentee?
You sort of mentioned that, you know, when you get together with your group, you say, right, who have you talked to, but, but what do you think that you are sort of emulating that says, this is what I want in a mentee that the, that your students also, your research lab partners also understand that. Yeah. And so I, I think, you know, the, the mentee is, is someone who really is able.
Is able to take direction and criticism, but at least for me, I, all criticism is constructive. Right, right. And so someone who recognizes that all criticism is constructive, a mentee who's creative. Right. And who's willing to, and of think outside of the box, especially for the good of the group mentees, who, who also sort of have the, that same philosophy that I have.
Right. Which is a mentee is also going to be a mentor. Right. And so, so I, I really do try to emulate what I hope, right. Each of them will, will sort of have for one another or, or sort of project to one another. Right. Because each of them are going to me mentoring to some extent one another during their, during their graduate work or undergraduate work for that matter.
And, and so, you know, it's, it's creativity, it's excitement. It's wanting to be part of a team. Right. And, and recognizing that. They're going to be most successful when the team is, is successful. And it it's also, frankly, it, because we bring so many different aspects of chemistry together in our research group, right.
It's someone who who's able to, to kind of plug in to where they're most excited. And contribute in the way that, the way that they're, they think that they're gonna be most valuable. So in some ways you're saying that mentees also need to be self starters, that they can't wait for someone, even though there's going to be, you know, feedback and there's going to be assignments.
They also need to be a bit of a self starter, which is, I think goes along with independence, but is still a little bit even asking for that jump in . Absolutely. Yeah. And, and self starters, you know, It's not necessarily something that I look for because I, you know, I, I think. To some extent I was a self-starter and, and you know, a lot of people who go to graduate school and, and well, and ultimately end up in, in academic positions, right.
Are self starters. Yes. But I think that there's also a lot of individuals who enter graduate school, not really knowing where they wanna be. Right. And, and that's okay. Right. That's perfectly fine. And that's part of my job as a mentor is, is to help them develop and get to the point where right. They're comfortable.
Doing what they need to do. And going off into that LA into that right. Postgraduate career and being that self-starter right. And so by the time they're done, they should be a self-starter if they, if they're receiving a PhD. Well, that seems like a great moment to take a break. So let's break for a moment to hear from WVU provost's office of graduate education and life.
Welcome back to grad life. 6 0 1 research and beyond. I'm your host, Dr. Nancy Corona. And I'm speaking with Dr. Brian Popp an associate professor in the department of chemistry here at WVU. So I'd like to move the conversation a little bit and talk about your position as director of graduate studies. What do you think is the most important aspect of this position for you?
Yeah, so I, I would say that being director of graduate studies is, is really about assessing the program. In evaluating where we go moving forward and, and just to kind of take a step back. So to give some context to that, to that, to that question, or to that statement, you know, as. As director of graduate studies, I work with a team, the, the committee on graduate studies here in, in chemistry.
And we see through, we, we basically are tasked with all aspects of the graduate program from recruiting to matriculation orientation and, and team building all the way to graduation. And post career tracking. Right? And so we, we really have an outsized role by the myself and, and the four other members of the committee.
We have an outsized role in, in how the graduate program works. And so assessing and evaluating the program is important because we, we strive to ensure that our program is a five year program. Right. We want, we want our graduate students to be here for, for the, the time in which we've laid out our program.
And we want them moving on into careers that right. Are, are going to, to build them up both financially and sort of well intellectually. Right. And, and we'll stimulate them long term. Right so that they have that satisfaction. So when you say assessment and evaluation, that's an interesting word to someone like me, who does advising at the undergraduate level, because what you're suggesting is that from the moment that those students apply.
You have to evaluate how they're going to fit into the program. And because you probably have numerous labs, you have a lot of graduate students that are moving through the program at different times. How do you keep up with following students in their post postgraduate life? What's one of the tools that you use to help them and to help you keep track of what your students have gone on to do.
Yeah. And, and so part of the assessment. Is making sure that I have regular conversations with faculty. Right. And, and so, you know, the, the, as, as I would say, you know, as, as a, as a research, you know, as a researcher, as someone who runs a research group, right. I'm the one who, who knows where all of my graduate students have ended up.
And I still have regular communication with all of my PhD, you know, my PhD graduates and undergraduates for that matter. And so it, it, for me, it as the director of graduate studies, My first kind of line of communication is through the faculty. Right. And, and through the individual research advisors, but we also have other mechanisms.
So I, I utilize LinkedIn on a regular basis. I'm, I'm not a, a big social media person, but, but I, I certainly bought to, to LinkedIn and I communicate and, and keep up with, with our, our past graduates that. Nice. And then we also do, you know, just post, post graduation tracking at the program level. Right. And, and it's, you know, just simple surveys usually that, that we send out.
OK. Well, what tips do you have for undergraduate students or master students as they're, as they're applying to graduate school, whether they're applying to master's programs or PhD programs. Yeah. And, and, and so my, my advice has actually changed dramatically in the last, I think, five years or so four years, especially post.
Well, the beginning of the pandemic, right. You know, we used to rely heavily on the GRE. And I think that for a lot of reasons that we don't need to discuss today, right? The GRE is no longer a, a mechanism by which we use, you know, we do any sort of evaluation. Right. And, and I think that that's probably very true.
I know for biology and, and chemistry programs nationally, now that the GRE is, is now sort of a, a me a mechanism that we don't necessarily rely on. It's true for English programs as well. okay. Well, that's, that's great. Yeah. So I'm a big believer in GRE exit, right? So, you know, we're not as, as a program, we're not gonna be going back to, to that for quantitative assessment measures of, of new applicants.
But that being said. We still have to assess an applicant on their potential for success in our graduate program, right? Yes. And so when we're, when we're looking at, when I'm looking at applications and what I ask the committee to, to review, and we're looking at applications, uh, is, is excitement, right?
And also kind of the ability to communicate both written and, or. Right. And so that normally comes through in the, the personal statement, right? So the personal statement that a, that an applicant writes is, is now it it's taken a really kind of a high profile role in, in all applications, at least from, from, from my point of view, it, it has.
Right. And so, so what can an applicant do to make a personal statement really stand out? Right? It's identifying. Kind of unique aspects of their training, right? Whether it's undergraduate research, whether it's going and, and doing an, doing an internship or, or community work, things that, that have positioned them to, to be successful in graduate school.
Right. If they can demonstrate that they're a start a self starter, that's great. If they can, at a minimum, they need to demonstrate. They're excited to be going to graduate school. Right. And so, you know, the, the same things that I look for in a, in a research group member are the same things that I'm looking for.
From a program perspective as a whole, right. We're also looking for, you know, ensuring that we have a diverse group of, of applicants. And so the, you know, the extent to which a, a student can demonstrate, right. That they, that, that they're involved with DEI issues. Right will also help because that's, that's going to be kind of a selling point for us because we want to create an inclusive, or we want to ensure that we have an inclusive, diverse, and, and equitable graduate program.
That makes a lot of sense. So now I saw on your Popp group website that you incorporate social outings, like going to WVU football games. Is it important to teach your lab researchers that life is not all about work? Absolutely. Yeah. So I, I, maybe this is just in as a, a very brief aside, right. I think it's important, you know, so I'm a, a I've had two kidney transplants.
Okay. And, and so as, as someone who's, who's been through medical issues myself, right. You know, the career, your career is important, but what you do outside of, of your career is, is equally important, right? And ensuring that you have great work life balance, whether you have a family or if it's just right for yourself, right.
Making sure that that you're doing things yourself is so critical, right. It improves creativity. It improves. Enjoyment of, of your job. And so, so from my, from my research group perspective and, and from the, the department's perspective, because we also, we do football tailgates, or at least we used to prior to COVID.
Right? So at, at a department level, we do football tailgates as well. It's it's critical right. To, to, to do things that are outside of the lab that, that build camaraderie, that build togetherness. And I have always brought to, to my research group, sort of a family sort of well, a, a desire to have a family, right.
That right. We may not always kind of communicate well. Right. We may not always agree. Right, but we're always going to have, right. That, that kind of family structure to come back together. Right. For a common purpose. And that's, I. One of the, the aspects of doing things away from the lab, whether it's going to pirates games or, yeah, I drove, I think what 15 people down to, down to Florida for a conference once, you know, like having those sort of really, really close interactions is, is I think really valuable for, for the, the graduate experience.
And undergraduate experience. Right. And I think it's a bonding experience, but it also teaches them that their life is not their work. Absolutely. And I think that's a really important aspect that sometimes graduate students don't always learn. They think that they have to be working all the time and.
That that life is a lot bigger than that. So I think that's great that you know how to share that from your own life experience, but also just because you know how you want your research, you know, what you want your research group to look like and behave like. Right. So what do you do for fun outside of WVU?
What does your life look like outside of WVU? Yeah. So I have a four and a half year old son who runs my wife and I ragged through every, every potential safety issue or, you know, or just you, there's a lot of teachable moments. Let's just say in my life, outside of, outside of WVU. So between just, you know, having a, a family and, you know, To stay in shape, you know, so I, because I have, I've had my health issues, right.
I, I put a real premium on ensuring that, that I'm in great shape. And so I I'd love to run. I do half marathons on a regular basis trail running and, you know, like all, all, any way to kind of be outside, especially, you know, in the summers here in, in Morgantown. And in the, in the forest, you know, around the region is great.
We also do a lot of camping. So, you know, the, all of the, all of the really great aspects of being in West Virginia, my family takes advantage of what's your favorite place to run in Morgantown? What's your favorite trail? Yeah, so I, my personal favorite is, is Deckers Creek. Oh yeah. Is the Deckers Creek trail.
And, and so depending on how many miles I need to do in a, in a given day, actually, I like to drive up towards what is it? So it it's one of the churches, so, oh, the melon chapel. Yeah. I love to go. I love to go up there. Yeah. With like, there's a great place to park. And then you, you run towards, I guess you run east from there and it's it, you know?
It's just pristine wilderness. Right. And if you're out there by yourself, There's, there's not too much better than that. In fact, I've seen, I've seen two black bears out there on that trail once, which, which was really cool. Now we were, we were about maybe a, a quarter of a mile away. So I, we felt pretty confident or com comfortable, but I've been, it's funny.
I've been out on that trail with my Chihuahua. And there are moments where she just looks at me and turns around and walks back and I trust her cuz I figured she smells something that I do not know exists yeah. And put around him. Yep. And, and that's, that's what you get in West Virginia, right? It it's.
It's pristine wilderness. What's your favorite place that you've camped at? Just out of curiosity? Yeah, I think our, our favorite right now is, is in Parsons. So there's, I think it's called five river campground and, and it's a rather large campground, but they have some primitive sites. We, we like primitive, camping, although it still is car camping.
So it's not really primitive, but you know, it's it down by the river. I think it's black fork or something like that, but you can walk into the river and it is, it's just. It's nice. It it's. It's great. And, and Thomas and Davis are close by Thomas and Davis. Yeah. Yeah. And so the, you know, it's a nice little day trip over to those towns and.
Yeah. So these are things that, that I do with faculty. So we, we also have a, I think our WVU chemistry has a very tight knit group of faculty and we, we do a lot of things outside of the department as well. Well, thank you for speaking with me today. I really appreciate your insights and your honesty. So thank you again, Dr. Popp. Yeah. Thank, thank you, Nancy. And, and for all of those out there, you please call me Brian. I okay. Thank you, Brian.
And thank you to GradLife 601’s podcast audience. I hope you enjoyed this episode, please join us next time when I'll be speaking with Dariane Drake, a doctoral student with the college of Human Services and Education.
Until next time, I'm Dr. Nancy Caronia for GradLife 601, Research & Beyond.