Chemistry Department Ranked Among Elite Programs

When it comes to undergraduate chemistry degrees, certification by the American Chemical Society is like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, signaling to potential employers and graduate schools that a student has completed an especially rigorous chemistry curriculum.

That is why the University of Houston’s success in churning out ACS-certified graduates has put the chemistry department in some very exclusive company. According to data compiled by ACS, UH ranks 30th among 632 universities in the number of certified chemistry degrees it awarded in 2006, the latest year for which data is available.

With 22 certified graduates UH was just slightly behind prestigious schools like Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois.

And with almost 40 students expected to graduate with ACS-certification this year, UH’s ranking likely will rise even further, said Simon Bott, the department’s director of undergraduate affairs and advising.

Chemistry students can pursue two types of undergraduate degrees – the bachelor of science, which follows the strict ACS-approved curriculum – or the less rigorous bachelor of arts.

ACS is a membership organization that includes students, researchers and professionals in the field of chemistry and is the world’s largest scientific society.

Like most schools, UH encourages its chemistry students to pursue the ACS-certified degree, Bott said. The certification makes students more competitive for graduate school and industry jobs.

ACS requirements include at least 500 lab hours, about twice what a BA chemistry degree would require, Bott said. ACS also requires more coursework in biochemistry, inorganic chemistry and physical chemistry.

About three-fourths of chemistry undergrads at UH are pursuing the ACS-approved degree. Having that credential is important when students start looking for jobs in the chemical industry, said David Hoffman, chair of the chemistry department.

“When you go out into the real world, ACS certification means something,” Hoffman said.

That the department shepherds so many of its students through the rigorous ACS curriculum can be attributed in part to a faculty that looks out for its students, Hoffman added.

“We try hard to take care of our majors by providing them jobs as teaching assistants or tutors and research opportunities with our top faculty,” he said.

The extra help from faculty matches the high expectations they set for their students, said Saba Javed, a senior chemistry major.

Javed plans to pursue a Ph.D in chemistry after graduating in May. The rigorous curriculum encouraged by the department and the opportunities for undergraduate research helped her compete for admission into top graduate programs. Javed is weighing offers from both the California Institute of Technology and Cornell University.

ACS certification opens doors to both graduate school and industry jobs, Javed said, and the extra chemistry coursework is helpful even for premedical students.

Javed became involved in research the summer after her freshman year, and she continues to work under Hoffman in synthetic inorganic chemistry – research with potential applications in catalysis.

During her last semester Javed, who is also president of the UH ACS chapter and a student ambassador for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, has averaged 40 hours a week in the lab. She even was toiling in the lab during spring break.

Like the numerous opportunities to get involved in research, the large number of students completing the demanding ACS curriculum is possible because of a chemistry faculty that goes the extra mile for its undergraduates, Javed said.

“Because the student-faculty ratio is small, there are so many opportunities to interact with professors and to do research with them,” she said.