In Kenneth Sontay Vicente’s words, “Scientists are cool.”
“I mean this is childish, but I’ve always admired them. I think lab coats look amazing and I want to eventually have one,” said Vicente, who graduated in May from East Ridge High School.
What’s cool is more than just looks, he said.
“I love chemistry. It’s the career path I want to go into. I want to be a chemical engineer or somewhere in that area.”
Vicente’s love of chemistry—lab coats included—led him to spend eight weeks at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as part of the American Chemical Society Summer Experiences for the Economically Disadvantaged (SEED) project.
The national program sponsors participation by high school students from lower-income families in paid summer research opportunities to encourage participants to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Vicente and three students from Heritage High School in Ringgold, Georgia, are in the SEED program this summer, working with four professors and alongside UTC undergraduates on research projects involving cancer detection, the prevention of diseases and dealing with bacterial infections.
“I truly believe—and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe this—getting an undergraduate degree in science is going to provide lifelong employment for these kids,” said Dr. Keenan Dungey, head of the UTC Department of Chemistry and Physics and one of the professors in the SEED program.
“It’s the American dream. They’re going to be able to provide for their family and improve the standard of living for their family,” he said.
The four students—all selected by officials at the American Chemical Society—are paid $4,000 each over the eight weeks, working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Funds for the campus program come from the Department of Chemistry and Physics, the UTC Division of Diversity and Engagement and the American Chemical Society, Dungey said.
UTC joined the SEED program in 2022. Vinesah Goodwin has been part of it for two summers, solidifying her plans to major in chemistry when she enrolls at UTC after graduating in May 2024 from Heritage High.
“I had a big interest in chemistry, but I wasn’t planning on majoring in it until I came here last summer,” she said. “I enjoy being in the lab and learning how to do different things and learning the math and everything. I just find that really enjoyable.”
Conducting research with Dr. Jared Pienkos, assistant professor in chemistry at UTC, Goodwin said she’d like a career in medical research. He hopes what she learns in the SEED program will help her achieve that goal.
“I’m hoping to teach her how to be an independent researcher so she can pick something to study and how to do proper experimentation and analyze all the data,” he said. “The research here really teaches creative critical-thinking skills, and that’s what I want to pass on to Vinesah.”
Maggie Chen, another Heritage student planning to graduate in 2024, said she’s interested in environmental studies and knows chemistry “is kind of the basis of everything,” and that lab work is a large part of the SEED program.
“I thought it would be interesting to go in-depth and see what goes on in the lab,” she said.
Dungey described this year’s students as “amazing.”
“It told me that we have great faculty that can mentor these students, but it also told me these students are really capable and, if we give them the opportunity, they could go far. And this is giving them that opportunity.”
- Dr. Keenan Dungey, head of the Department of Chemistry and Physics
- Dr. Jared Pienkos, assistant professor
- Dr. Ben Stein, assistant professor
- Dr. Yong Yang, assistant professor
- Maggie Chen, Heritage High School
- Vinesah Goodwin, Heritage High School
- Emily Lin, Heritage High School
- Kenneth Sontay Vicente, East Ridge High School
Click here for more chemistry and physics news.