The Department of Chemistry offers students many opportunities to conduct meaningful, relevant research alongside experienced and accomplished faculty beginning freshmen year.
While our classroom experiences teach laboratory skills, research allows students to do science – to make a new compound, measure properties of a new molecule, or develop a new way to determine a molecular property. Exploring the unknown through research is difficult but that is also what makes it satisfying!
The Department of Chemistry has several active projects in the area of synthetic chemistry – the making of new compounds.
The first involves making new transition metal compounds by linking organic compounds with transition metal ions. Students working on this project use our NMR spectrometer and x-ray diffractometer to determine the structure of the compounds they create. The goal of this project is to develop new catalysts.
The second type of synthesis involves seeking new anti-cancer agents through organic chemistry. Starting with compounds that are already known to have anti-cancer activity, like resveratrol and quercetin, new compounds are synthesized. In collaboration with our biology department, the compounds are tested on breast cancer cells from a cell line patented by two former faculty members.
Thirdly, students have the opportunity to make molecular machines such as rotaxanes in which a macrocycle molecule is formed when a molecule wraps around a second molecule that acts as its “axle.” Since the macrocycle can be affected by chemical or photochemical inputs, these types of compounds could eventually be used as sensors, in new data recording technologies, or in drug delivery systems.
Computational chemistry answers chemical questions using computational modeling tools and software. The department currently has two active projects using these computational tools.
The first involves temporary anions which are formed when a neutral compound accepts an electron. These temporary anions are so named because they aren’t stable and lose the electron in a very short time, typically nanoseconds to picoseconds. Our research seeks to calculate the energies involved and determine how long the electron stays attached. Students working on the project learn to use sophisticated software, do some programming, and perform their calculations on powerful workstations. We hope that understanding these temporary anions may lead to the discovery of new reaction pathways.
The second project focuses on ring strain energy. When small, organic molecules are converted from a straight chain to a ringed form, the formation of the ring causes the molecule to be higher in energy (strained) and usually more reactive as well. Our research group has used a formalism called the “Group Equivalent Method” to calculate these ring strain energies.
We have been exploring the unexpected result of, in some cases, a three-membered ring having a ring strain energy nearly the same as a four-membered ring and are examining a wide range of compounds to determine which types of compounds exhibit this unexpected behavior. Our goal is to find a measure that would predict which molecules behave unusually and to put forth an explanation.
Analytical chemistry is about developing new methods of analyzing composition and molecular properties and about the analysis of unknown samples. We have active projects of each type.
Polyethylenimine (PEI) is a positively charged polymer that is known to bind with negatively charged DNA and has been extensively used for introducing genetic information into cells, as well as exhibiting antibacterial properties. While this system has been applied and used extensively, the mechanism of how PEI binds to DNA is still not fully understood. Our particle charge detector is being used to develop reproducible methods for characterizing the charge properties of forms of PEI.
Fracking has had an enormous impact on Pennsylvania, both economically and environmentally. In our second analytical project, we have been obtaining samples of groundwater and well water at sites near fracking wells or where fracking may soon occur. The water is tested for various ionic and organic species using our ion chromatograph and gas chromatograph with a headspace analyzer.
Our greatest focus in biochemistry is on the structure, stability, and function of proteins and nucleic acids. Using bioinformatics methodology to study the sequence and properties of proteins, one recent project in this area correlated the measured isoelectric points of 2,426 proteins with the composition of ionizable groups in the protein. This data allowed us to compare methods for protein isoelectric point prediction, a key feature in designing schemes for protein purification.
We also use biophysical methods to characterize the conformational stability of proteins. Many proteins adopt a complex, three-dimensional structure in aqueous solution which gives rise to their function, but that structure is in equilibrium with the unstructured form of the molecule. We have recently measured the loss of conformational stability of a protein in increasing concentrations of ethanol - biochemical research which might lead to understanding a clinical condition.
Research must be communicated, otherwise the new knowledge that has been created will not be utilized by the broader scientific community. The department and the College enable students to present the results of their research at conferences. Several students (typically seniors) are sent to the National American Chemical Society meeting each year to share poster presentations of their work. Our research has resulted in several papers being published in peer-reviewed journals over the last few years. Recently published research papers include: