Lauren Johnson ’21 is one of just a few freshman students ever chosen for Longwood’s highly competitive summer research program.

Lauren Johnson stands out from other Lancers on campus this summer. She doesn’t dress or act particularly differently—in fact, you couldn’t tell by looking at her what makes her different unless you peeked at her driver’s license.

Johnson ’21, a chemistry major, is the youngest Longwood student participating in PRISM this summer. She is part of a select group of young scientists—mostly rising juniors and seniors—who are working closely with a faculty member on an intense research project. One of the few rising sophomores to earn a coveted slot in the program, Johnson has had to play a bit of catch-up. But that hasn’t held her back.

I don’t know what my future will hold, but I know that going through this as a freshman will help me make better decisions throughout college.

Lauren Johnson '21 Tweet This

Can you describe your project?

I’m working with Dr. Ben Topham, a chemistry professor, on building pieces of electrical circuits at the molecular level. In a normal electrical circuit—think of wires connecting a battery to a lightbulb—there are various components that need to be present to achieve what you want. One of those is a diode, which allows the current to flow in one direction and not the other.

We are trying to shrink everything down and create a molecule that acts like a diode so electrical circuits can be created that are extremely tiny. When we design one of these molecules we think will work, we use a computer program to calculate if electrons will flow from one side to the other.

Each day I come in and review research and try to find ideas for different molecules that might work. Then we change the molecules slightly and test on the computer whether it acts like a diode or not.

That sounds pretty intricate. Is this type of research something you knew you wanted to do when you enrolled at Longwood?

Actually, no. I came in as a liberal studies major, but, on the second day of classes, a professor talked to me about a different path to teaching where I got to study chemistry more. So I changed my major to chemistry and will also earn secondary education teacher licensure. That way my options are open when I graduate.

During the first semester of my freshman year, it never crossed my mind to join a research project. But a few friends and Dr. Topham encouraged me to apply for PRISM, so I figured why not? When I got the email saying I had been accepted, I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

What’s it like to be involved in this research after only finishing your freshman year?

Well, I started off behind everyone else, just because I hadn’t taken as many classes as they had. So there was a big learning curve at the beginning. But once I learned the concepts, I started to be able to piece things together pretty well.

In general, I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to work on a project like this in my first year in college. It feels like the doors have really been opened up to me. I don’t know what my future will hold, but I know that going through this as a freshman will help me make better decisions throughout college.

Lauren is really accomplishing great things that most freshman students don’t have the opportunity to do, and I think I’m going to be a better teacher and mentor going forward because of this summer.

Dr. Ben Topham Tweet This

What does a typical day look like?

Dr. Topham and I work really closely together—I have a lot of questions!

There’s a lot of reading and looking through papers for different ideas, then thinking about how to change molecules to make them work better. Sometimes it’s slow progress, but then other times the ideas come really quickly so we have a lot to work on all at once—it all depends. And, of course, some of the molecules we test on the computer simulation work out better than expected, but most of the time they don’t. But that’s research for you!

How does it feel to work so closely with a professor every day?

Dr. Topham is really great at finding ways to explain pretty intricate concepts in a way that they make sense, so I am really grateful that I get to work with him. And that’s especially important with the work we are doing because the field of molecular electronics is developing right now. It’s like a brand-new baby, and accomplished scientists are just now finding out how it works. That’s really exciting to me— that I get to participate in a developing field as a student.

But apart from the science, Dr. Topham has become someone I look to for advice and life experience as I get ready for my sophomore year. He’s someone who I know—even after this summer is over—I can go to if I have any questions about school or life.

Topham, this isn’t your first PRISM project. What’s different about working with a freshman student?

To be honest I was a bit nervous at first. Every professor in PRISM has an ambitious timeline and a certain number of tasks that need to be accomplished in order to present the work at the end of the summer. So I was wary that, because Lauren needed some more time to get up to speed, we might not make our goals. But she had a lot of potential, and I thought that the benefits of her of being involved in research projects for three years would be a great opportunity.

The project itself is similar to what I’ve done before, so I’ve found that this experience is pushing me to be a better teacher—to find ways to explain concepts in ways I hadn’t considered before. At the end of the day, Lauren is really accomplishing great things that most freshman students don’t have the opportunity to do, and I think I’m going to be a better teacher and mentor going forward because of this summer.

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