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Franklin Park professor honored for making science accessible to students

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Jennifer Aitken of Franklin Park, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Duquesne University, received the 2014 Chairman’s Award from the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh.
By Laurie Rees
Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Jennifer Aitken of Franklin Park is helping nurture the seeds of science careers in high school students who might benefit from some extra attention.

Aitken, 40, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh's Uptown neighborhood, recently was honored for her work with Project SEED — a program sponsored by the American Chemical Society that makes science skills and careers more accessible to high-achieving high school students from economically disadvantaged households.

She received the 2014 Chairman's Award from the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh — a plaque and $1,000 to support this year's program.

“What makes Project SEED unique is that it's a very intense, one-on-one experience for students. It runs for eight hours a day for eight weeks in the labs at Duquesne University. Students get to work closely with university mentors on real research projects, and they get real laboratory experience every day,” Aitken said.

SEED stands for Summer Educational Experience for the Economically Disadvantaged.

Students observe chemical reactions in the lab and conduct chemical simulations on the computer to see how specific combinations might behave. They create new compounds and characterize them through analysis.

One student is studying the effects of thermal stress on fuels, which is important for developing new fuels and improving existing ones.

At the end of the summer, the students will present their results at the annual Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences Summer Research Symposium at Duquesne. A few might get their studies published in science journals.

But the biggest benefit, Aitken said, is that the program fosters an interest in science and raises confidence in the students.

Aitken brought the program to Duquesne University in 2003 and continues to coordinate it.

Many of the students entering Project SEED doubt they will get the opportunity to attend college, and the program helps them explore financial resources and the college-application process.

Some students have gone on to attend Case Western Reserve University, Penn State, and The College of Wooster, among others, Aitken said.

Winning the Chairman's Award has assured Aitken that Project SEED is supported by the science community and the broader community.

“That makes me happy,” she said.

Manny Miller, chairman of the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and sole decision-maker on who receives the annual Chairman's Award, lauded the program.

“It gives students from disadvantaged homes a chance to explore physical science or chemistry so they can pursue it further,” said Miller, 65, of Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood. “Many of these students end up going to college and getting good careers. Perhaps that wouldn't happen otherwise.”

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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