By Jeff Murphy, April 27, 2020
After completing a bachelor’s degrees in chemistry at UCM in May 2020, Jodi Pedersen, Warrensburg, is headed to the University of Minnesota to pursue doctoral study in chemistry this fall. Photo by McKenzy Rehfus.
WARRENSBURG, MO – Research opportunities and strong interactions with faculty members at the undergraduate level are giving University of Central Missouri (UCM) chemistry majors a leg up in pursuit of advanced degrees. For three UCM seniors, this means an opportunity to enter doctoral programs that not only advance their education and career possibilities but enable them to graduate with terminal degrees debt free.
After completing their bachelor’s degrees in chemistry at UCM in May 2020, Jodi Pedersen,
Warrensburg, and Cole Scholtz, Grain Valley, are headed to the University of Minnesota
to pursue doctoral study in chemistry this fall. Logan Hessefort, who resides in the
Kansas City metro area, was looking for a more affordable option to his undergraduate
program when he decided to transfer to UCM as a sophomore chemistry major during the
2017-2018 academic year. He is now moving on to Arizona State University in pursuit
of a Ph.D. in chemistry.
After benefitting from an affordable program at UCM, all three of these students have
opportunities that significantly help them cut the cost of their graduate education
via stipends and other financial benefits.
“Simply put, doctorate chemistry programs are more like jobs than like undergrad,”
Hessefort said. “Typically, grad school in chemistry involves two years of actual
classes and the remaining two to four years are composed almost entirely of research.
Additionally, while you are in graduate school you are assigned either a teaching
assistantship or a research assistantship. These positions then qualify you for 100%
of your tuition paid, a sizeable living stipend, and health insurance.”
As a first-generation college student, the ability to pursue a doctorate once seemed
cost-prohibitive for Scholtz. His hard work at the undergraduate level paid off giving
him an education which he believes stacks up against the education students receive
from institutions across the country.
“I never quite realized how well the chemistry program here at UCM prepared me for
graduate school until I went on graduate school visits,” Scholtz said. “Here I was,
surrounded by people who had attended much more well-known schools…and yet I was just
as qualified, if not more so, in my research experiences. I am living proof that the
chemistry program at UCM is able to compete with those schools on an undergraduate
level in order to prepare students for graduate school.”
Other students leaving for Ph.D. programs were grateful for the instruction they received
at UCM, their faculty mentors, and the opportunities to participate in meaningful
research, both at the university and through various internships and related experiences.
As a first-generation college student, the ability to pursue a doctorate once seemed cost-prohibitive for Scholtz. His hard work at the undergraduate level paid off giving him an education which he believes stacks up against the education students receive from institutions across the country.
“Undoubtedly, the research I’ve done here at UCM and at my internships has most greatly prepared me for grad school but also all the great instruction I’ve received while here at UCM,” Hessefort said. “All the chemistry professors have greatly helped me through this process, through the course work and counseling.”
“The faculty mentors at UCM truly made a difference in my education,” Pedersen said.
“When I took general chemistry, I was a nursing major and kind of liked chemistry
but as the course progressed the professors convinced me that I really liked chemistry.
Over the next four years the professors were there to encourage me through the tough
days and celebrate accomplishments.”
As undergraduates, all three students had the opportunity to broaden their knowledge
of chemistry through National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates
(NSF-REU) opportunities. These are very competitive programs in the summer that took
place at other universities, according to Dr, Jay Steinkruger, associate professor
of chemistry who taught all three students and worked closely with colleague Dr. Chen
Zhou, associate professor of chemistry, as an advisor on research projects with Pedersen
After his junior year, Hessefort spent a summer at the University of Kansas as part
of an NSF-REU. Scholtz participated in an REU at the University of Utah in 2018, where
he worked with researchers developing model catalysts to help design bio-fuel cells
that are more efficient than traditional combustible engines. He also took part in
a summer program at the University of Minnesota, where he got to work with a team
developing small molecules and techniques to help understand a class of proteins called
bromodomains, which are linked to diseases ranging from glaucoma to asthma to cancer.
Pedersen’s initial REU took her to Saint Louis University in 2018, where she learned
a lot about how research works. This whetted her appetite to dive deeper into the
subject by participating in another REU experience in 2019. This one took her to the
National University of Singapore Cardiovascular Research Institute, where she worked
with chemical engineers, biomedical engineers, biochemists, biologists, and medical
“First, I went to Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, where I
learned about virus purification methods and scientific communication,” Pedersen said.
“Then, I went to Singapore to work on the project. While I was working on the project,
I made weekly Twitter and Instagram posts to inform people in the U.S. what I was
doing. I also learned how to work interdisciplinary and internationally.”
“Collectively, this experience helped prepare me for a Ph.D. program because I learned
how to communicate with other scientific disciplines, communicate science to the public,
work internationally, and learned more about science,” Pedersen added.
After his junior year, Logan Hessefort spent a summer at the University of Kansas as part of an NSF-REU. Scholtz participated in an REU at the University of Utah in 2018, where he worked with researchers developing model catalysts to help design bio-fuel cells that are more efficient than traditional combustible engines.
Steinkruger said the chemistry faculty at UCM take great pride in providing a rigorous
program that will better prepare its graduates for advanced education. He attributes
the success of these three students to their own personal drive and work ethic that
allowed them to persevere as undergraduates - all qualities he expects to help them
as Ph.D. candidates.
“What these stories nicely illustrate is that you can be a good old-fashioned Missouri
public high school graduate that goes into a college setting, and if you work hard
and take feedback and continue to improve yourself, you can go out there and be competitive
with the very best students in the country,” Steinkruger said.
He also noted, “This really magnifies the importance of attending an affordable four-year
institution like UCM. Students have access to outstanding educational programs at
an affordable price. We’re talking about three adults that have the opportunity to
earn terminal degrees in chemistry while accumulating very little student debt. That’s
a rather incredible outcome in higher education in 2020.”
Learn more about opportunities in the chemistry area at UCM by contacting program coordinator Dr. Jason Holland.