Throughout the year, RED’s Changemakers series will feature students, faculty members, staff members and alumni who are trailblazers for Colorado’s success and active citizens paying it forward in their communities. Are you (or is someone you know) a Changemaker? Share your story.
Chemistry students at MSU Denver must sometimes think they have won the educational lottery.
That’s because Andrew Bonham, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, always goes the extra mile in the classroom.
He’s a great teacher. He also runs his research laboratory, the Bonham Lab, on campus grounds, purely to support students. And in a true rarity, he encourages undergraduate students to lead pioneering research projects, meaning they get published in prestigious scientific journals while still in college.
“My involvement in Dr. Bonham’s research has boosted my confidence as a scientist and helped me apply classroom knowledge to real-world problems,” said Victoria Colling, one of his students. “His classes have been such a valuable experience.”
Student Keaton Silver went even further. “I think Dr. Bonham’s knowledge of the subject and dedication to his students are unparalleled,” he said. “I’ve never met an educator of his caliber before and don’t believe I will again — he’s an amazing role model who always inspires me to do better. “
For such a prominent educator and mentor — he has won numerous teaching awards — Bonham came from the unlikeliest of beginnings.
“I had zero formal scientific education growing up,” he said. “Like many of my students, I associated the subject with intellectual giants such as Einstein. I just thought, ‘That’s not me.’”
But he now appreciates that real scientific progress happens when numerous people add nuggets of knowledge to help shape the bigger picture. It’s a truly collaborative process.
“These days, I get up every morning determined to teach my students that they are exactly what a scientist looks like,” he said. “Anyone with critical–thinking skills and a positive attitude can make a distinct contribution and help push progress in the right direction.”
Of course, good science also takes hard work, and the professor is not shy about pushing people to realize their maximum potential. “Whenever my students — not only seniors but freshmen, too — show real potential or interest, I like to throw them in at the deep end with challenging projects,” he said.
“Obviously, I’m there to provide support and motivation,” he added. “But there’s nothing like tackling tough and thorny scientific problems to foster a sense of achievement and self-belief.”
During his time at MSU Denver, Bonham has provided intensive mentoring support to more than 50 students. Of them, 20 of his undergraduate students have been published as authors in respected scientific publications.
“I simply don’t believe that you need to be a postgraduate before you can achieve real, publishable science,” he said. “That’s why I like to work with undergraduates on published research: I want them to recognize early on they have the right stuff to be real scientists.”
In fact, his team’s most recent published research, which concerned developing a rapid test to detect lung cancer, was entirely student-driven. “One of my students actually came to me and suggested the idea,” he said. “And that’s how it works: If you give them the tools, they will produce incredible results.”
One of the main engines driving Bonham’s zeal for teaching is a conviction that everyone deserves a shot.
MSU Denver’s Chemistry classes include many talented first-generation students from diverse backgrounds, who often face significant financial challenges in persisting to graduation. “And I am there to tell them, emphatically: You can succeed at this,” he said.
Bonham is keenly aware that many of his students never thought graduate school was in the cards for them. “But then, they present at a scientific conference or see their name published in a respected scientific journal,” he said. “And suddenly, they start thinking, ‘Well, maybe…’”
Today, several of Bonham’s former students are working on doctorates and postgraduate courses at Yale, Ohio State and several big-name California universities.
But what makes the professor happiest is witnessing a growing sense of confidence and self-belief in his students. That, he says, has been fundamental to the success of so many MSU Denver students, including Victoria Colling.
“By enabling me to collaborate with experts and even contribute to publications, Dr. Bonham has made all the difference,” she said. “Thanks to him, I really feel like I’m a part of the scientific community.”