Pet Project Spotlights Talented Student

Top of the Class


By Cathy Rainone

AndreWhat's really to be found in dog food? Queensborough Community College student Andre Smithson found more than just nutrition.

Last year, Smithson had a chance to work with QCC chemistry professor Irina Rutenburg investigating the possible presence of heavy metals, especially mercury, in holistic, fish-based dry dog food with the use of an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. Rutenburg and Smithson didn't find mercury in the foods they tested, but they did find "significant concentrations of lead."
"I did all the tests in one semester," says Smithson. "And I saw how important chemistry is."

Smithson had come to New York City from Jamaica two weeks before the beginning of the fall 2009 semester with one goal in mind: stay focused on his studies. He's now in his second year at QCC with a 4.0 grade point average.

"I really wanted to do research," says Smithson. " I've only seen scientists on TV in white coats with glasses on. I like being in a lab and feeling like I'm a scientist."

Rutenburg was impressed with Smithson's work on the project. "Andre is the most wonderful student I have ever had: highly intelligent and talented, extremely reliable and responsible, at the same time modest and humble," she says. He was recommended to her by professor Paris Svoronos, then the chair of QCC's Chemistry Department. In an honors general chemistry course, Smithson constantly raised his hand to answer Svoronos's questions and explain the problems to his classmates. Svoronos soon offered him a tutoring job in the college's chemistry department.

"Andre is a very articulate person who can apply concepts taught in class in an impressive manner," says Svoronos. "I quickly decided to use his patience and quiet mannerism in the tutoring program. He excelled and earned the respect of all students he tutored."

After completing the investigation of heavy metals in dog food with Rutenburg, Smithson presented his findings at the Thirteenth Annual CUNY Pipeline Honors Conference at the Graduate Center in February 2010.

"I was very excited [to present]," says Smithson. "I just like talking to people and telling them what I know and seeing how people react." Smithson also did presentations of his work at the American Chemical Society's 41st Middle Atlantic Regional Meeting in Wilmington, Del., at the 6th Annual Honors QCC Conference and at the 240th National American Chemical Society meeting in Boston.

The research also helped Smithson get into the CUNY Summer Undergraduate Research Program. He spent two months working on a project, "Elemental Analysis by Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS)" with his mentor, Glen Kowach, a chemistry professor at City College.

"I chose this topic for my research project because I have done [dog food] research, which used the type of data that was generated in this project," says Smithson. "This research study had helped me understand concepts I thought were unnecessary."

As part of the program, Smithson was awarded a $3,500 stipend, room and board at City College and a "cultural passport" to visit museums and other attractions in the city.

"My experience in the program was exceptional," says Smithson. "I worked with a post-doctoral student, undergraduates and high school students. Although it was a long two months, it was an experience that I am glad I was allowed to endure and I would do it over again if I get a chance to."

Smithson got interested in sciences back in primary school during a math competition for sixth graders. Then while attending Wolmer's Boys School in Kingston, the oldest school in the West Indies, he found himself engrossed in physics and chemistry.

"I always wondered what's the use of math in everything we do," says Smithson. "And I learned that in physics all of it is being applied. And I was fascinated about chemistry because it helps you understand how things are interacting with each other."

Smithson plans to become an engineer, though he's not sure what field he'll focus on. He's grateful to his uncle, Thomas Gordon, a stationary engineer at Hunter College, who thought QCC would be a good fit for his nephew. Smithson often marvels at how much he's accomplished in just one year.

"I'm very glad I came to QCC," says Smithson. "I didn't know going to a community college would be that good because in Jamaica we have community colleges, but I would have never considered going there. There are so many opportunities available through QCC. I'm very happy with my uncle's choice."

Andre Smithson's first research project was analyzing holistic dog food.