Chemistry and Community: Heidi Hendrickson, ’09, On Her Hillsdale Education

Written by Kokko Tso

Heidi Hendrickson graduated from Hillsdale College in 2009 with a bachelor of science in chemistry. She went on to get her MS in educational studies and Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Michigan. She is currently pursuing post-doctoral research at Yale University.

During her doctoral studies at the University of Michigan, Heidi also pursued a masters degree in educational studies. It was during one of her education classes that she encountered a misinterpretation of Plato in her readings – and she decided to challenge it. Heidi recounts,

Since I had taken an ancient philosophy class with Dr. Stephens at Hillsdale, I was familiar with Plato’s dialogues. The research article that my grad school professor assigned us to read completely misrepresented what was going on in Meno – even its summary of the text was wrong. So, I wrote a paper about the article’s inaccuracies. It grabbed my professor’s attention and he later asked me to co-author a book review of the researcher’s book. The funny thing was that this faulty article on Plato’s Meno appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. Most people didn’t catch the problems. I was able to break down this particular article and identify the errors in the author’s approach because Hillsdale gave me a broad perspective and a familiarity with ancient texts.

This particular anecdote captures the core of Heidi’s appreciation for her liberal arts education at Hillsdale. “A strong foundation in writing, history, and philosophy has practical value, especially for scientists,” she says. This shared foundation also fosters a sense of community between students of different disciplines at Hillsdale, something that Heidi especially cherishes. “Science majors, humanities majors, fine arts majors – we all took the same core classes together. I really liked the fact that we were all immersed in a wide variety of disciplines, that we all came together as a unified community of scholars. No matter what class I took, I never felt like an outsider.”

This sense of community permeates Heidi’s memories of her time at Hillsdale. When asked to describe her experience in Hillsdale’s chemistry program, she exudes joy and excitement: “I just loved the chemistry department so much! Where do I even begin?” Focusing on the close relationships between faculty and students within the department, she describes her professors’ genuine care for both her intellectual and personal well-being.

My professors took the time to find out the things I was interested in, to get to know me as a person. They were always receptive to talking with me and spending the time to make sure that I understood the material at the end of office hours and study sessions. So many of them told me, ‘I’ve always learned something new every time I teach a class.’ They didn’t view students just as these vessels to be filled with information; rather, I got the sense that they were learning with me.

Heidi says that these interactions with her professors strengthened her desire to pursue chemistry, and she credits them with inspiring her current plans to teach at a small liberal arts school.

Heidi also emphasizes her appreciation for the research component of the chemistry program. All chemistry majors at Hillsdale are required to pursue original research during their senior year. For Heidi, this process culminated in the opportunity to present her senior thesis on an experimental spectroscopy technique at the PittCon Analytical Chemistry Conference in Chicago. She describes the experience as the highlight of her undergraduate career, saying, “Presenting at PittCon was such a good experience for me, especially since I planned to go on to graduate school. The process of writing a thesis, structuring my report after a research publication, and putting together a presentation prepared me well for the things I would be doing in my Ph.D. program.”

Heidi’s Undergraduate Senior Thesis Research

“The research that I presented at PittCon was based on Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS), which is an experimental spectroscopy technique that allows us to characterize vibrational energies in molecules. In Raman spectroscopy, we shine light on a molecule and measure the energy of the light that is scattered off the molecule. Most of the time, the scattered light has the same energy as the incident light, but sometimes the energy of the light will change as a result of interactions with the molecule (i.e., the molecule can gain energy from or lose energy to the incident light when it undergoes a change in vibrational state). The change in energy of the scattered light can tell us a lot about the vibrational energies of a given molecule, providing a type of molecular signature.

Unfortunately, Raman scattering signals are typically quite weak because most of the scattered light does not undergo a change in energy. However, SERS provides a way to greatly enhance the Raman signal that we detect. In SERS, a molecule is attached to a specific type of metal surface that increases the interaction between the molecule and the incident light. As a result of these increased interactions, we are able to more strongly detect the scattered light that has undergone a change in energy.

My undergraduate work specifically focused on understanding how we can design surfaces that will provide enhanced SERS signals. We used a photochemical reaction, which was triggered by incident laser light, to probe various surfaces made up of silver nanoparticles in order to determine how these surfaces enhance the interaction between the incident light and the molecule.”

Looking back on her Hillsdale experience, Heidi emphasizes the importance of the communal environment. “I keep coming back to the overall community of students and faculty,” she laughs. “I just really loved the atmosphere – everyone cared about learning, everyone was always was really excited to learn new things, both in and outside the classroom. Everyone was just really, really nice and welcoming. That’s what I love about Hillsdale.”‘


Kokko TsoKokko Tso graduated from Hillsdale College in 2013 with majors in music, Latin, and history. He currently works for his alma mater as the Digital Content Manager.