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Conference offers students chance to experience chemistry in Chicago

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Cutting class doesn’t usually result in an hour of college credit – unless it’s for one of the world’s largest chemistry-related trade shows.

March 8-12, six Bethel College students, along with Professor of Chemistry Richard Zerger, skipped almost a week of classes to attend the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, or Pittcon, held this year in Chicago.

The students were enrolled for an hour of chemistry credit for attending Pittcon, and had to make up all the work they missed on campus.

Pittcon – originally organized by the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh but now held at a different location each year – is the largest annual laboratory analytical trade show in the world. It features hundreds of companies exhibiting the latest in laboratory advancements along with presentations of technical papers and opportunities for networking within the chemistry industry.

Bethel College students began attending the conference back in 1989, due in a large part to encouragement and funding from Orvin Voth, Newton, a 1964 Bethel graduate.

Voth taught at Bethel from 1966-68 before becoming a chemist at the refinery in McPherson. After leaving Bethel, he continued, he says, to “pester the chemistry professors” (at the time, Robert Schmidt and Thomas Lehman) to spend a sabbatical in the industry sector of chemistry since many of their students would likely pursue that career route.

While he was unable to convince either Schmidt or Lehman to take this step, Voth did work with Lehman to develop a chemistry course that gave students college credit for attending Pittcon, which exposes students to the industry side of chemistry.

“The opportunity for Bethel chemistry majors to attend the Pittsburgh Conference and Exposition allows them to learn about the latest instrumentation, equipment and supplies available in analytical chemistry and applied spectroscopy,” explains Zerger. “By meeting people who represent careers on the industrial side of the chemistry profession, students gain a much broader perspective of what chemists do and the wide range of careers open to chemistry majors.”

Or as Matt Regier, Bethel sophomore from Whitewater, puts it: “It was like the state fair, except with chemistry!”

Freshmen through seniors attended the conference this year. “I went to the Pittsburgh Conference to learn more about jobs that are available in the chemistry field and to get more of a grasp on what career I want to head into after college,” says Carrie Schulz, freshman from Newton. She found the vendors to be “open about giving insights on getting to a good career in chemistry.”

“I was impressed with the new technology that there is,” says Jose Rojas, senior from Newton. He felt that it was “a good opportunity [to get] to know the instruments that I’m going to be working with in the future.”

Orvin and Janet Voth have been helping with the costs of students’ transportation to and lodging at the convention since almost the beginning of this course offering. “I enjoy [the conference] enough that I’m willing to give people the opportunity to go,” says Orvin Voth. “It’s up to them what they get out of it.”

He notes that Pittcon can have a significant influence on students. Some have gotten interview experience at the conference, even job offers, and others have decided to change their career courses.

Even if students don’t pursue a job in the chemistry industry, Voth still sees value in the experience for them. “Other businesses have trade shows, too,” he notes.

In addition to attending the conference, the students had time to take in the city of Chicago. “We went to the Adler Planetarium, walked up and down the Magnificent Mile, saw Wrigley Field and went up the Sears Tower,” says Regier.

“Dinner was always a treat because we ate at restaurants that were nothing like what we have here in Newton, Kansas,” says Schulz.

Rojas adds, “Every night we went to different restaurants. We had Chicago style pizzas, Spanish food, Italian food, and others.”

“I would definitely recommend this to other chemistry majors. It was a great experience and really broadened my horizons,” says Regier. “There were just so many things that we would never see without this, and it was a good way to network and learn more about chemistry.”

In addition to Regier, Rojas and Schulz, Dana Daugharthy, senior from Iola, Omar Hasan, senior from Halstead, and Louise Zurkee, freshman from Andale, also attended this year’s conference. Bethel offers the one-hour Pittcon option every other year to chemistry majors.

The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, a Pennsylvania non-profit organization, occurs annually in various U.S. cities. Pittcon attracts “20,000 to 25,000 attendees from industry, academia and government from 80 countries worldwide,” according to its Web site ( This year marked the 60th conference.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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