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 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 for toxicity to cancer cells.
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 involves using molecular dynamics calculations to understand the motion of molecules such as proteins. Students learn the basic concepts of the theoretical foundation, work with state-of-the-art software, and perform the calculations on our workstations with the added computing power of graphics processors.
Analytical chemistry is about developing new methods of analyzing composition and molecular properties and about the analysis of unknown samples. We have several 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.
Our other projects involve analyzing alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA's) in cosmetic exfoliating formulations through high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), developing a method to identify and quantify dental resin composites with gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS), and constructing a solid-state battery using solid polymer electrolyte (SPE) to improve safe usage.
Biochemistry focuses on the molecules used by living things to utilize energy, build structures and pass on genetic information. Recently there have been several projects in this area.
During the pandemic, daily participation in social, school or extracurricular activities was dependent on feeling well. Any touch of illness might have signaled the need to self-isolate, often for several days as definite diagnostic tests required non-trivial time. Students used the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to develop tests for SARS-CoV-2 spike protein genetic material. The focus was on optimizing the specificity while reducing the time required to make a positive identification.
Using bioinformatics methodology to study the sequence and properties of proteins, another 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 students to compare methods for protein isoelectric point prediction, a key feature in designing schemes for protein purification and understanding the water solubility of proteins under a variety of solution conditions.
Enzymes catalyze a wide variety of reactions required for metabolism and many pharmaceuticals are inhibitors of enzyme activity. Recently students used the computational methods of automated docking to screen a library of 5.8 million small molecules looking for ones which might bind tightly to the active site of candidate enzymes, inhibiting its activity. Candidate molecules are currently being tested with the enzyme to verify the predicted interactions.
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 a national American Chemical Society meeting each year to share 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: