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Lei tapped for 2016 Faculty Mentor Award

Xiangyan The Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) has named Xiangyang (Sunny) Lei, associate professor of organic chemistry and interim chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, as the recipient of Lamar University’s 2016 Faculty Mentor Award.

Lei, who earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from Texas Christian University in 2006, joined Lamar University in 2008 as an instructor and became an assistant professor in 2009. She has an extensive list of publications, presentations and funded research proposals, and has mentored 16 undergraduate students since she set up her lab in 2010. Lei has also supported nine students financially with her research grants.

“Dr. Lei has a natural ability to attract students from her class and other sources to her research,” said Paul Bernazzani, interim associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “She has a long and fruitful history in undergraduate research here at Lamar, and she is someone we are very glad to have.”

To Lei, helping her students succeed by involving them in research is one of her passions.

“Since I started my position here as an assistant professor, I have had undergraduate students involved in my research each year,” Lei said. “After research, my students might be able to say ‘Oh, this is what I do/don’t want to be doing’ about a particular aspect of chemistry, so from there they can determine what to focus on, which skills to hone, and whether they’d like to continue their studies with a master’s degree or Ph.D., or enter a career. They will also be more competitive in their future jobs with research experience.”

But Lei’s research students aren’t the only ones learning in the lab. She says participating in research with her students is helpful because it allows her to shape her teaching content in the classroom and lab.

“Overall, I think it’s good for them, and for myself,” she said. “I learn from them—when they maybe struggle with a concept or excel at something, it gives me a better idea of what I should be teaching in the classroom and what concepts I should focus on. I can modify my teaching both in research and in classroom to better the experience for the students.”

Lei in labLei says she likes to foster independence in her researchers by giving her undergraduate students independent projects while employing the skills of her veteran researchers, graduate students, and a postdoctoral fellow to offer help when needed.

“If they can do something on their own they gain confidence, they feel like they can be successful. They are undergraduate students—when they start researching they’re usually not all the way ready yet,” she said. “By having the older students there for help and by allowing students to work on projects independently, the students develop better and then can be mentors later for the next crop of new researchers.”

Lei encourages students to present their research at various conferences and poster competitions, where they consistently place. She also encourages their involvement in publications. Four of her undergraduate students have co-authored three published peer-reviewed articles, and one placed in the top two posters in organic chemistry at the 2011 American Chemical Society Southwest regional meeting in Austin. That student was accepted to Rice University and later the University of Texas at Austin with a full scholarship plus stipend.

Moments like these where she sees her students succeed are the most affirming and rewarding aspects of Lei’s research mentorship.

“These are the ‘ah-ha’ moments where I really feel ‘Oh! We are really doing something worthwhile here!’ Because sometimes we have this worry that students won’t retain what they learn in research—that it will just be for credit hours and then it’s gone,” Lei said. “But when we, as research mentors, see a student succeed, it’s proof that we did something, and that what we did was worth it.”