Summer in Shrader
Published: 2017-02-01

It is not long into the summer that the lights and hoods in Shrader Hall remain off and silent. This year, the chemistry floor hosted a total of 8 students engaged in research under the direction of Dr. Read Spray and Dr. Williams. The goal, alongside the furthering of knowledge in the field, is for the students to accumulate real-world laboratory experience and organizational skills, while drafting papers and presentations as one might in the academic world. Both professors followed a similar structure for allocating projects to their students: providing each with a different variation of a starting material or precursor and allowing them to work through a predetermined procedure, making adjustments for their specific compound along the way. 

Summer Spray

Chemistry major Carly Byron (17) , Biology major Cindi Hazelton (18) and Biochemistry major Kenny Sorensen (18) assisted Dr. Carrie Read Spray in the synthesis of inorganic metal oxides. With clean energy and a hydrogen economy in mind, investigations are being made into the various morphologies of cuprous oxide, a semiconductor able to split water using solar energy. In an attempt to control the surface interactions of this material, different solution and electrodeposition-based synthetic pathways were followed, and the resulting morphologies analyzed, to-be-tested with a solar simulator, in hopes of producing efficient electrodes for a photochemical device.

Each student working under Dr. Read Spray was given a different starting material, with the goal of determining the effect of the starting inorganic salt on the material's performance. The complexity of the project provided opportunities for each student to familiarize themselves with instrumentation common and uncommon to the general chemistry laboratory, such as the potentiostat and solar simulator. "Dr. Read turns chemistry research into a good time for her students," said Sorensen.

Data from the Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) images taken at Smith College, where Dr. Read Spray is a research associate, are being analyzed, and the work is being continued by senior Chemistry major Chris Vatral.

Summer Williams

Chemistry majors Grace Maketansky (17) and Yanni Sholla (18) alongside Biology major Samantha Bartels (18) and Environmental Science major Kelly Di Stefano (18) worked under Dr. Joseph Williams in his continued investigations into a group of molecules called carbenes. Defined by an unstable, yet satisfied carbon atom with a lone pair of electrons, these molecules exist for very short periods of time. Those that persist can serve as exceptional catalysts, lowering the energy necessary for a reaction to occur.

Each of Dr. Williams' students was assigned a specific carbene precursor to synthesize, in this case, a P,N-heterocyclic carbene precursor. Bartels commented on how beneficial the work will be down the line, saying "it taught me a lot about working in a lab independently and how to find resources to continue a multi-step procedure which will definitely help me in future labs."

The work up until this point has primarily been an investigation into the properties of P,N-heterocyclics (carbon rings containing nitrogen and phosphorus), however once carbene synthesis is achieved investigations into their catalytic properties can begin. Aside from the usual equipment of an organic lab, these special compounds provided the students with the opportunity to perform 31 P-NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to analyze those products made.

Apart from metal oxide and carbene synthesis, Biology major Gerald McNeil (16) bridged the gap between the two professors, while performing additional research under Dr. Pierre-Richard Cornely in the Physics and Engineering Department. His work on the chemistry floor was a continuation of his research project from the Organic Chemistry II lab this past spring. With guidance from Dr. Williams, McNeil continued his synthesis of a novel flavone compound, branching out to include multiple starting reagents and products. Flavonoids, found naturally in plants, have been produced synthetically and found to play roles in cancer prevention and solar cells. For this latter reason, McNeil hopes to work with Dr. Read Spray in implementing these synthesized pigments into solar cells down the line. 

Research in these veins will no doubt continue in the coming summers in Shrader, as papers are published and new students cycle in and out. "It is always a joy to explore new horizons with students and help them go beyond the classroom experience," said Dr. Williams.

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