11:02 PM

The chemistry of community


For one recent alumna, finding an appreciative space meant following a road right into STEM-based doctoral research.

By Cory Phare

When Chanda Lowrance began her foray back into higher education at MSU Denver a couple of years ago, the D she received for her first online course landed her on academic probation.

Then, when she enrolled in general chemistry, everything changed.

“It was an amazing class – it was clear, well-planned out, and we knew exactly what was expected,” said Lowrance. “And when I got a 135 percent in the class, I knew this is what I’m good at; I actually enjoy this!”

The chemistry course wasn’t for the faint of heart, either – a condensed five-week immersion, it spoke to her in a way she hadn’t experienced before.

After changing her major, the 2017 chemistry graduate really hit her stride: She became a Denver Metro Chem Scholar. She conducted extensive research, resulting in multiple conference presentations. And now she is poised to begin her doctoral studies in physical chemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

So, what was the key to her transformation?

Having a place to belong

For Lowrance, resiliency is part of her personal makeup.

Six years in the Army National Guard helps with that. But she also credits the support of programs like the Louis Stokes Colorado-Wyoming Alliance for Minority Participation, or CO-WY AMP.

“Being a woman of color in STEM is a challenge,” she said. “A lot of times you’re the only one of both identities, and you feel like you have to work even harder to prove your qualifications, because people might try to put down your accomplishments.”

Finding a place to connect with others facing similar experiences is vital. And with the upcoming launch of the new Aerospace and Engineering Sciences Building, MSU Denver is doubling down on its commitment to transformational opportunities for all students.

“At some institutions, incoming classes in STEM fields may start with underrepresented populations, but don’t maintain them through degree completion,” said Joan Foster, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who co-chaired the AES Building initiative. “We’ve really worked to make that not be the case at MSU Denver. We want all of our students to graduate so we have programs like CO-WY AMP.

For Hsiu-Ping Liu, director of MSU Denver’s Center for Advanced STEM Education and CO-WY AMP site coordinator, the key is creating an infrastructure of success.

“From critical thinking to problem-solving, innovation, teamwork, and sometimes just lending an ear, we do our best to help,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

The National Science Foundation-sponsored initiative provides financial, educational and tailored personal support for students of color in STEM fields. In addition to experiencing structured efforts such as one-on-one tutoring, research opportunities and a Passport to Success program, CO-WY AMP participants become part of a close-knit community of encouragement and assistance.

“The financial benefits – like receiving funds for getting good grades – are great, but it’s really about having a place to belong,” said Lowrance.

You’ll get there

Finding that place to belong sometimes results from shared hardship. Lowrance described how the passing of chemistry professor Eric Ball last year was devastating, but ultimately brought the department closer together. Everyone supported one another.

It’s an example of community that is engendered across campus.

“I just sent 60 thank-you notes to people from my past; there’s no way I would’ve made it if it wasn’t for everyone’s help along the way,” said Lowrance.

That gratitude also inspires her to give back and help others. After building a career in medical research, she plans to eventually return and lead a classroom – developing future scholars.

And, when she does, she’ll be looking to help others form their own bonds and catalyze success.

“As difficult as it might be, it always gets better if you ask for help and put in the effort,” said Lowrance. “Keep moving toward your dreams, because you’ll get there.”

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