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A Demanding Course at Rutgers Inspires a Compassionate Act

A chemistry "all-nighter" helps community while helping students succeed

Chem gifts 3

An all-nighter in organic chemistry may not seem like a particularly festive event.

But a marathon review session set up for undergraduates taking this demanding course at Rutgers University–New Brunswick has become an annual tradition that helps spread holiday spirit while helping students succeed.

The organic chemistry community made it happen.

Since 2014, two teaching associates helping to organize and staff the study session held just before the final exam have asked students to bring a small donation.

The idea has caught on.

Last month, at the conclusion of the fall 2016 semester, teaching associates Akash Patel and Chirag Patel presided over a 22-hour review session at the Hill Center that drew hundreds of students and raised more than $5,000. Also contributing to the cause were Akash’s and Chirag’s family and friends.

The two collected the money and purchased a small mountain of toys and transported them in several SUVs to The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children's Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital

The smaller items—books, dolls, light sabers, and toy cars—were wrapped and presented to patients. Other toys like video game consoles are being kept in common areas where kids can use them year round.

Chem gifts 4“It was wonderful seeing all the assembled presents and knowing that it was the organic chemistry community that made it happen,” Akash said. “Everyone knows organic chemistry is one of the hardest courses. We want students to succeed and to leave knowing they came together to do something good.”

Chirag agreed. 

"We hope this is something students remember for the rest of their lives," he said. 

Professor Robert S. Boikess who oversees the course, said he was moved  - but not surprised - by the commitment of teaching associates and students to the greater good.

"Many students take this course because they want to help society as members of the health professions," he said. “Doing good and supporting the community is part of who they are.”

Both Akash and Chirag graduated from the School of Arts and Sciences in 2015. Akash, who majored in Cell Biology and Neuroscience, is planning to attend medical school. Chirag, who majored in biological sciences, is working for the university’s Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences, or ODASIS, and is planning on pursuing a PhD.

Since their senior year, they have been serving as teaching associates for organic chemistry, a course that draws some 1,400 students a year from throughout the life sciences as well as engineering and pharmacy.

John Brennan, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, said teaching associates provide 24/7 support for students, doing everything from answering questions in the classroom to setting up and monitoring online communities where students can get immediate help.

“They throw themselves into transforming organic chemistry into something other than the scary experience that some perceive it to be,” Brennan said. “They are out there explaining to students why it’s relevant and why it’s a field to be appreciated.”

Because Akash and Chirag are poised to pursue advanced degrees, the two said their involvement in the holiday fundraiser will likely diminish next year. But they hope to pass the tradition on to a new crop of teaching associates and expand it to other departments.

“It means a lot to us, and it means a lot to students,” Akash says. “We want the tradition to endure.”



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