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2012 News Releases

Organic chemistry professor takes pride in student accomplishments

September 4, 2012

Chris Gulgas
Dr. Christopher Gulgas

In Dr. Christopher Gulgas's organic chemistry lab, students often create molecules that have never before been reported.

Excited, they often show their results to Gulgas, asking if their unique compound looks as it should. "How should I know?" he asks. "It hasn't been described in this universe."

Gulgas, assistant professor of chemistry at Longwood University, takes great pride in sparking his students' interest, guiding them through discoveries in the laboratory and mentoring them as they embark on research of their own. Every student who comes through one of his classes is involved in some type of research, whether it be analytic or hands-on synthesis.

For his mentoring efforts, Gulgas recently won the John Cook Award from the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences. The award is given to a tenure-track faculty member who has worked with students to disseminate their academic work through professional meetings and publications.

"My No. 1 goal is to introduce students to research concepts and get their hands involved," he said. "It's important to give them real projects they would be dealing with in graduate school."

The end result of much of this research is that students have the opportunity to make presentations at academic conferences in the state and region. Most of the research is presented in poster form, and Gulgas said Longwood students' work is in the top half of what is on display.

"Dr. Gulgas has done a fantastic job of engaging his students in chemistry research," said Dr. Charles D. Ross, dean of the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences. "His students present at conferences on a regular basis and have a track record of matriculating into prestigious graduate chemistry programs. He has clearly made mentoring undergraduate research a priority, and this is not always easy to do for faculty who also are fulfilling tenure requirements."

Gulgas is currently working with students on a research project with the goal measuring the amount of capsaicin-the molecule that makes spicy foods hot-in food. He and students are bonding synthetic luminescent molecules created at Longwood to the capsaicinoid, which will glow under certain conditions. Ideally, the spicier the food, the stronger the glow.

He has been assisted in his research by a number of current and former students, one of whom is now enrolled in a Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.

Gulgas took a number of students to the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in March 2011 in Anaheim, Calif. They all presented original research there.

Wyatt Colvin '11, a member of the group that went to Anaheim and now works doing research at Luna Innovations in Charlottesville, Va., credits Gulgas with the success he has had launching his chemistry career. He said Gulgas is always able to keep his classes light, despite difficult concepts, which motivates students to enjoy what they are doing.

"He is an outstanding person and goes up and beyond in every aspect in order to help his students," Colvin said. "I did five semesters of research with Chris working on the same project and exploring different variables along the way. We presented many posters and did some PowerPoint presentations. Chris was able to point out what key points needed to be specific and concise not only in the presentation but also in my head in order to prepare for questions."

Rob Bressin '11, currently a Ph.D. student in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, is one of the many students who have gone on to graduate school after working with Gulgas.

"As a mentor, Dr. Gulgas was able to intellectually stimulate me, encouraging my personal goals as well as providing me the opportunity to develop professionally through academic research and writing," said Bressin. "He ensured I had the resources to present our work both locally and nationally. Ultimately his dedication to my success allowed me to graduate from Longwood prepared and confident to pursue an advanced degree in chemical research."

Gulgas gives credit to Longwood University for the success he's had in implementing his teaching philosophy.

"Longwood is a really good place for the research I'm doing to occur. It's actually the perfect place for my approach to foster student growth," he said. "I get to know all of the biology and chemistry majors each year, so I know the students before they embark on research, and I build extremely strong relationships with them."

The John R. Cook Award includes a $1,000 prize and is named for one of Longwood's first male graduates ('52, M.S. '60), a nationally recognized leader in guidance and counseling who served as supervisor of guidance for the Virginia Department of Education.