Staff Q&A with Ana-Rita Mayol

In her career, Ana-Rita Mayol has worked to get students from middle through graduate school excited about science. She’s developed science education programs and mentorships, as well as programs to train teachers so they’re better equipped to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers.

Now, Mayol is doing the same thing, and more, at Penn.

As the associate director of the new Master of Chemical Sciences program, a professional degree offered through the College of Liberal & Professional Studies, Mayol is responsible for administering and coordinating all aspects of the program, growing it into a robust graduate course of study.

“Having studied at an Ivy League school, I understand the intensity and requirements that students have to go through versus being in a smaller institution,” Mayol says, who received both her M.S. and Ph.D. in chemistry from Cornell. “This position is just perfect because it gives me the opportunity to do curriculum development, work with faculty, even support the students, but also, it has that administrative side that I have experience with.”

In the Master of Chemical Sciences program, Mayol is tasked with building a program from the ground up—something she’s done throughout her career.

“I worked a lot with NSF [National Science Foundation] and NIH-funded [National Institutes of Health] programs for minority students. I have a lot of experience writing a grant, saying this is what we’re going to do, and then making it happen,” says Mayol. “A lot of the programs I worked on were changing the culture of departments, changing the culture of how you do things—and it’s a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding.”

The Master of Chemical Sciences program had a soft launch last year, and currently enrolls two students. This is the first time the program is being marketed and students are being recruited, and Mayol says they hope to enroll around 10 students for the new cohort.

The Current met with Mayol to talk about getting the new Master of Chemical Sciences program up and running, her experience directing a science education program in her native Puerto Rico, and her time working at a cheese institute in Sicily.

Q: What makes the Master of Chemical Sciences program unique?                                                                            
A: If you have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and you apply for a Ph.D., you get a master’s on your way to the Ph.D. It’s a five-year program; students are fully funded. Typically, in these degrees, you take courses the first year and then you get heavily involved in research. You’re expected to publish in a peer-reviewed journal and there’s a thesis. This is a professional master’s, which means if you’re a full-time student, you do it in two years or a year and a half. Your research project is shorter—it’s a six- to nine-month research project, but we’re including all the important elements for you to succeed. We work with the students to know what their career goals are and then that way, we can direct them better into what courses they take, into what kind of research they want to do. The capstone experience is the research that they do. They don’t have to do it in a Penn chemistry lab; we have partnerships with local industries and right now we have one with the Blumberg Institute in Doylestown, which is a collection of start-up companies. Let’s say a student is interested in being a part of a start-up company. They have the opportunity to apply to a position and do their capstone there, using the same rigor that we do. We’re also creating pathways for employment.

Q: Who are the students who have an interest in the program?                                                                            
A: We have two kinds of students—those who are working in the field and might have only a bachelor’s degree and want to advance in their company, and also, recent graduates who want to continue to a Ph.D. We’re exploring having agreements with companies so that their employees can come [here] fully funded, and we’re trying to explore working with the military, as well. They have to pay for it; we don’t have any fellowships and that’s different from the Ph.D. where you get a full ride.

Q: Is this a particularly good region in which to have a professional chemistry program, with all of the science-related companies based near here?                                                                       
A: We have mainly pharmaceuticals in the area, and in reality, one of the biggest strengths in the department is organic and biochemistry. A lot of the projects are very interdisciplinary, so we have organic chemists who are doing applications in the medical world. You gain access to a lot and the facilities here are amazing. Having the opportunity to have this interdisciplinary experience will open doors for students.

Q: You’ve built a lot of programs from scratch. Can you talk specifically about one program that you developed?                                                                       
A: I was the education and outreach director for EPSCoR [Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research], an NSF-funded program that helps certain states and territories build their research infrastructure. Pennsylvania doesn’t have that program, but Nebraska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico do. It’s a big research center and it’s interdisciplinary. Our specific project [in Puerto Rico] was called the Institute for Functional Nanomaterials. We impacted everything from K-12 to undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral fellows, young faculty, and start-up faculty members. We created a pipeline [to figure out] how do we educate the students and teachers and facilitators, especially in an emerging [field of] nanoscience. I was responsible for coming up with how to do this at the different levels. We had a K-12 component and we created curriculum materials that were aligned with science standards, but were interdisciplinary in nature. We created a teacher-training program in which we had workshops periodically. We had a lending library in which the teachers could borrow the equipment for 10 days, [use] them in the classroom, and then return them. It became a self-sustaining program because teachers became master teachers, but it also became a good platform to have their undergraduate and graduate students learn how to teach and improve their communication skills. … We also had a post-doc mentoring program that we implemented. … We also had the service to help the younger faculty whenever they submitted grants.

Q: How did you decide you wanted a career in science?                                                                      
A: I’m the black sheep of my house because both of my parents are lawyers and my sister is in politics. I was always interested in chemistry, so I did a bachelor’s in chemistry. I was interested in inorganic chemistry, so my Ph.D. is in organometallic chemistry. When I graduated, I realized I just didn’t like being in the lab as much, and I had to find a different career path. So, I ventured into the food chemistry world. I found a wonderful mentor, Terry Acree at Cornell University, and I did flavor chemistry.

Q: What is flavor chemistry?                                                                      
A: When you eat, there are two components that go on. I worked with the receptors in the nose, because if you’re having an orange or a pear, the taste in your mouth tells you if it’s bitter or sweet, but it’s not telling you what it is. These compounds are photocompounds, they’re in the gas phase, and they’re in really small amounts. What I did was take the vapor part of food  samples [using] a gas chromatograph [GC] or photometer and tried to identify the profile of the smell. When you identify the orange versus the pear, it’s not just one single compound; it’s a combination of compounds in a defined region. This is very powerful if you’re trying to characterize an odor like a product that is artisanal, or if you have a product that is just off, like it tastes funny. I went to Sicily to a cheese institute. What we were trying to do is correlate the good cheeses and the flavor profile, the smell profile, with the ones that were not there. We were able to identify a few compounds that were present in certain kinds of feed that the cows were eating.

Q: Do you have a good nose?                                                                      
A: At least I used to!

Q: Is that something you have to practice?                                                                      
A: In a way. A lot of your sensitivity of your nose comes from your DNA, but also, if you had an accident or something, that triggers it. You might be predisposed to be more sensitive to certain kinds of compounds than others and then there are tests you can take to calibrate you to a big group of people. Sometimes, you have difficulty identifying certain smells just because you’re not familiar with them. As you do it more, you get more familiar because you have the jargon and the experience.

Q: What are your goals for the Master of Chemical Sciences program?                                                                      
A: The main goal is to grow the program, get good candidates, and to make it a robust program that addresses the needs of the students and provides them with the academic rigor that is necessary for them to succeed. We’re also establishing partnerships with industries and government agencies. The long-term goal is to have a strong program that has a good pipeline for students to go into the workforce.

Ana-Rita Moyal