Students prepare innovative research for SRC

“They’re not playing at being little scientists,” chemistry professor Tim Humphry asserted. “They’re actually being real scientists.”

The pride in Humphry’s voice was obvious as he spoke about the undergraduate researchers’ work, which he and chemistry professor Amy Fuller advise.

A rotating group of students has been working for the past five years on creating molecules called sulfate esters, naturally found in aerosol particles in the atmosphere. Many of these students will be presenting at the Student Research Conference on April 5.

The ongoing project these undergraduates have been working on is in collaboration with professor Elizabeth Stone of the University of Iowa. Fuller said the group creates synthetic duplicates of the sulfate ester molecules Stone is researching. Fuller said Stone uses these molecules to calibrate her tools and confirm her findings. Humphry said the group also studies the stability of the molecules.

“That’s kind of the two halves of the research we do in the lab,” Humphry said. “Half the lab makes the molecules. The other half of the lab sees how stable they are.”

But the students don’t just function as a molecule factory. They also meet every week to hone their presentation skills. On Monday, Magruder 1099 contained 15 or so students gathered to watch sophomore Molly Vittengl present her work on the group’s project. Fuller said it was the first time Vittengl had presented the work she is doing. The group contains students of all years, including two seniors who will be doing 30-minute capstone presentations the week after the Student Research Conference.

Senior Andrea Hamilton was also at the meeting and she will be presenting at the Student Research Conference on her experience at the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois.

“So there they have a thing, it’s called an advanced photon source, and it’s a mile long, and it goes around this big building,” Hamilton said. “Basically we open up part of it, and we’re shooting X-rays at this tiny, tiny part of crystal that we have. And then we’re trying to get a structure, so we’re trying to see what it looks like and bonds and bond angles and to see if we’ve made what we [think we] really made.”

Hamilton presented at the SRC last year about the group’s molecule synthesis work. She said it was less work last year because she was working with a partner.

“It was still a really good opportunity because you get to learn how to speak in a chemistry setting in front of more than [the] 15 people that we have here and in front of people that’ll ask you questions that maybe you haven’t thought of before, ‘cause it’s a different perspective from other faculty and other people who decide to watch,” Hamilton said.

The rapport between the students and their advisers was made evident at the meeting by the jokes they made about each other. Fuller spoke about how the group generally conducts its research, emphasizing that the students are proficient enough in the lab to do most of the work on their own, but Hamilton said Fuller and Humphrey are always available to help.

Hamilton said the process of preparing the research for presentation is a satisfying process that she sees as preparing her for graduate school. Fuller said the students are preparing their presentations throughout the year, rather than trying to gather scattered data right before the SRC.

Hamilton said she feels nervous about presenting research but is also well equipped to speak on the subject. Fuller also said she thinks the students are prepared, saying it is enjoyable to see their work and presentation skills evolve through their college careers.

Humphry leaned forward in his chair and spoke with passion as he emphasized the ability of the student group.

“We’re making this molecule because other people can’t,” Humphry said. “Other chemists have tried and they haven’t been able to make it, and so we’re having the undergrads do it.”

Humphry started getting excited as he explained what this research means to not only him but the students.

“This is real, genuine, leading-edge, international research that these guys are doing,” Humphry continued to explain. “I mean, the molecule that [Hamilton] is making — if she makes it, she will be the first person in human history to see a pure sample of that thing. We don’t pretend to do cool chemistry here. These guys are actually doing chemistry that’s as important as any chemistry that’s done in any grad school anywhere.”

Thanks to Dr. Chad Montgomery and chemistry senior Kyle Angle for assistance with this article.