Granting New Possibilities

Sometimes you have to step outside your realm of comfort and challenge yourself to explore new ideas before you can secure a true sense of growth and direction in life. Rachel Shaffer, a senior chemistry major, came to this realization with the financial assistance and academic opportunities provided to her through the Reber-Offner Research Grant.

Shaffer was the first recipient of the grant in spring 2016 and received a $5,000 stipend to participate in a ten-week research project last summer. Vera Reber, a former Ship professor and Honors Program director, and her husband John Offner, also a former Ship professor, endowed the research grant several years ago. Their hope for the annual grant was to ease the financial burden for a female honor student majoring in math, physics, chemistry, or computer science, so that they may immerse themselves in their studies.

“I was going to do research over the summer with no monetary backings. It was nice to find out that we actually had some money to conduct the research and for me to stay (in Shippensburg) to do a longer project than I originally anticipated,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer partnered with Dr. John Richardson, professor of analytical chemistry, for her fully funded summer research project, and together they explored the spectroelectrochemical qualities of heavy metals such as lead and zinc on Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) coated glass. These heavy metals are common components of gunshot residue, Shaffer explained. The duo approached their research from a forensic angle by analyzing the composition and properties of gunshot residue in a solution on the glass slides.

By exposing herself to electrochemical and analytical concepts that diverged from her biochemistry concentration, Shaffer cultivated applicable skills and gained an appreciation of the strenuous process that goes into scientific research. “One big thing that I needed to learn in doing this research before doing any other research was essentially how to try and fail at things,” she said. “A lot of research is trial and error, especially when you are fairly new at it. You have to learn to take those failures and say, ‘Okay, how do I have to modify a procedure to get the result I am looking for?’”

But Shaffer gained more than problem solving skills by the conclusion of her research project. She also landed an internship at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The research she conducted during her summer project at Ship was rooted in the same information gathering techniques that NIDA interns use, giving Shaffer an advantage over other applicants. While at Ship, Shaffer studied a substance’s composition on a micro-scale with glass slides. At NIDA, she conducted an in vivo study looking at drugs like cocaine in the brain of a rat.

“Because I did this analytical research, especially with the electrochemistry, the PI (Principal Investigator) at NIDA found my application in the database, and that’s one of the reasons why he chose me to be his intern. It gave me a good foundation to do the work that I was doing there,” Shaffer said.

After Shaffer paid the summer expenses from her research, she had the opportunity to use the remaining money to fund her travel to the American Chemical Society National Meeting in San Francisco. While there, she networked with other students and chemists and presented her research during the undergraduate session.

Before Shaffer was awarded the grant, she planned to be a clinician and attend medical school. However, the experiences that stemmed from her grant research opened her eyes to new interests and opportunities.

“Both this project and all the projects I have gotten to do have shown me that I’m not ready to give up any kind of research in my career,” she said.

Shaffer now plans to take a gap year to participate in a post-baccalaureate program with NIDA, where she will be able to work with professional scientists to conduct biomedical research.

“Taking a gap year is something that didn’t realize was important until I actually had these research opportunities where I met post-bacs and realized how important they are if you are unsure,” she said. “With the way the medical cycles go, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of time to make a decision.

I didn’t want to go into (a program) and not be happy with the choice I made.”