Whitworth develops students who are skilled at doing science. But that’s just a side benefit. The primary outcome is developing skilled scientists who make meaningful contributions to the sciences at Whitworth, to the field at large, to industries and to humanity.
Students like chemistry major Aaron Teo ’22 are achieving that outcome in large part because of Hugh Johnston, who taught chemistry at Whitworth for 16 years. Johnston’s passion for Whitworth and its mission inspired him to establish a future gift to fund an endowment upon his passing. In 2015, through a $2.05-million donation from Johnston’s estate, Whitworth created the Hugh Johnston Professorship of Chemistry and an interdisciplinary research fund.
In collaboration with Hugh Johnston Professor of Chemistry Kraig Wheeler, Teo is using X-ray crystallography in his research to discover how molecules organize in crystals and pack together.
“The main benefit for me has been getting more comfortable in the lab and being able to persevere and solve problems,” Teo says. “Dr. Wheeler doesn’t tell me the right answers or what to do. He sends me in the right direction, but for the most part he lets me figure things out on my own.”
Teo has learned to value the challenges and setbacks he encounters in the lab. “Coming up with my own solutions has really helped me grow as a scientist and as a student,” he says.
“Aaron is now an independent researcher where he thinks about his own projects and the next direction he is going to take,” Wheeler says. “He has definitely matured in his research and scholarship.”
The connection between Teo and Wheeler is – to put it scientifically – symbiotic.
“I really can’t get anything done without partnering with students,” Wheeler says. “I have too many ideas and projects to do them on my own.” In addition to collaborating on research, Wheeler and his students produce papers and give presentations at national conferences. “The students play a critical role in the whole production of research here at Whitworth,” Wheeler says. “The outcome really rests on their shoulders.”
Johnston’s gift has also provided a new way of thinking about and “doing” science at Whitworth, as Wheeler and his chemistry students partner on interdisciplinary projects with faculty and students in other academic areas such as mathematics. And the gift allows Wheeler time to write research grants that lead to big gains, most recently the acquisition of the X-ray diffractometer that Teo is using to research the molecular interaction of crystals.
Teo’s research is preparing him to achieve his dream to work as a lab technician or a chemist after graduating, and to possibly pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. He’s also excited that the outcome of his research could lead to scientific advances that serve humanity. “If my research does well,” he says, “other researchers will be able to develop new solid materials based on the fact that polarity greatly increases how crystals form.”
At its heart, Hugh Johnston’s realized future gift sustains and enhances Whitworth’s “three C’s”: community, connection and collaboration. “Faculty-student collaboration is huge in students’ development as scientists,” Wheeler says. “They get to explore different areas and see if this is truly a path they want to take as a profession. They gain hard skills that are transferable in science and in the lab, and they gain soft skills that will help them in their professional development, whether it’s communication or writing, or working in front of people or in groups on research projects. It’s all beneficial.”