Undergraduate research opens doors for first-year Penn State Hazleton students

Two students standing in front of a white poster board.

First-year Penn State Hazleton students and longtime friends Brett Wilson, left, and Kevin Lowen recently presented a poster on their undergraduate research at the American Chemical Society's spring 2022 conference in California.

Credit: Dan Patel

HAZLETON, Pa. — Kevin Lowen and Brett Wilson know a thing or two about bonds. They met in fourth grade, became good friends in high school, and even enrolled together at Penn State Hazleton. So, it was only fitting that bonds would be the focus of research the first-year students recently presented at a national chemistry conference in California. 

The pair attended the American Chemical Society's spring 2022 conference in San Diego with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dan Patel, where they presented a poster on the halogen bonding research they conducted under Patel’s guidance. 

Lowen and Wilson, from Jonestown in Lebanon County, said opportunities to conduct research and receive individualized attention from faculty members like Patel were among the reasons they chose Penn State Hazleton. 

An added bonus was getting to experience both at such an early stage of their college careers. 

“During my first year, I expected to just take classes with not much thought beyond that,” said Wilson, a chemistry major. “But having research opportunities and experiencing the togetherness of the campus — I’ve made friends, I have a group that I study with, and I know the professors more personally — it’s so much more than I ever expected. I think it’s a big testament to Penn State and Penn State Hazleton itself.” 

Lowen, a microbiology major, added, “My experiences have been above and beyond my expectations. I thought I'd have to work hard to get my professors to notice me but here it was natural. They want us to succeed right away.” 

Not only were Lowen and Wilson enthusiastic about conducting and presenting their research, but they also understood the impact the experience could have on their professional growth, Patel said. 

“Attending conferences like the American Chemical Society conference allows students like Kevin and Brett to learn the kind of skills that will help them as they move further in their careers,” Patel said. “They can see what others in their field are doing and formulate new questions to ask about their own research in order to become better scientists.” 

In addition to presenting their research, titled “Halogen Bonding in Photochromic Naphthoquinone Based Diarylethenes,” Lowen and Wilson sat in on various discussions and seminars led by chemistry experts from around the world. 

“Chemistry is a massive field,” Wilson said. “Being able to look around and talk to different people from different areas helped me start to figure out where I think I’m going to belong. I have more direction now going forward.” 

“We were learning techniques that we probably wouldn’t have learned for another few semesters anywhere else.” 

—Brett Wilson , first-year Penn State Hazleton student

Wilson said that after hearing about the research opportunities available to first- and second-year students during an open house, he pitched Penn State Hazleton to Lowen. The pair are graduates of Northern Lebanon High School, where they worked together on experiments in their chemistry and biology courses. That familiarity working side-by-side in the lab has carried over to Penn State Hazleton, they said. 

“I know the things I’m good at and [Lowen] knows the things he’s good at,” Wilson said. “Our skill sets mesh really well.” 

Their research was made even more effective thanks to guidance from Patel every step of the way, they said. 

"If he knew we were about to do something particularly complicated, he would give us an explanation and walk us through it beforehand,” Lowen said. 

Wilson added, “We were learning techniques that we probably wouldn’t have learned for another few semesters anywhere else.” 

Elizabeth J. Wright, Penn State Hazleton director of academic affairs and associate dean for academic affairs, Commonwealth Campuses, said the research opportunities available on campus have helped students gain admission to graduate and medical schools, obtain recognition at regional and national research conferences, and continue their work at other institutions. 

“Penn State Hazleton takes great pride in its long-standing history of faculty and students working side-by-side on undergraduate research,” Wright said. “We encourage students to take advantage of these opportunities to collaborate with faculty members who are dedicated to sharing their experiences and expertise with them.” 

Similarly, Lowen and Wilson said their experiences in just their first year on campus have already opened doors to other exciting opportunities.  

This summer, Wilson will take part in an undergraduate research program through the University of Buffalo, while Lowen will conduct research on an invasive species of catfish with Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Schall. 

They encouraged other students to get involved early in their college careers, too. 

“If you want to do something on campus, you have all the resources and support to act on it,” Lowen said. “Just go for it.” 

Both students plan to transition to University Park after their second year at Penn State Hazleton, pursue graduate studies and, eventually, earn their doctoral degrees.