Getting to Know UVA Chemistry’s Undergraduate Researchers – Part 2
Amelia Reid, UVA ChemSciComm
With over 250 declared majors, UVA’s Department of Chemistry has an incredibly active undergraduate research program. These students find a way to incorporate this into their busy schedules for an experience that many would describe as very rewarding. This interview with undergraduate researchers in our department is the second in a two-part series. These three students are all involved in a broad range of research projects in the Department. Even with different majors and areas of interest, they have all found projects that excite them and have been paired with mentors they acknowledge in contributing to their individual success. Read their answers to the questions below to see why they believe research has set them up for ongoing success and advice they have for future students.
- What is your year, major, lab, and plans after graduation?
- James Sappington: I am a third-year Chemistry major working in the Machan Lab. My current plan is to try to get a PhD somewhere, but I haven’t figured that out yet!
- Joshua Cole Faggert: I am a third-year Astrophysics and a Chemistry double major. I am currently working with Professor Garrod’s lab/group, and I plan to go to graduate school after my undergrad at UVA.
- Malcolm Huguenin - I am a fourth-year Chemistry major with a specialization in biochemistry, and I work in the Hilinski lab. I am currently applying to several PhD programs in chemistry for next fall.
- Why did you choose the research group you are a part of?
- James: My dad works for the EPA, so my family and I have always been passionate about protecting the planet and fighting climate change. I was immediately drawn to the Machan Lab because their work in electrochemistry and catalysis to sustainably produce fuels and chemical commodities was the perfect blend of chemistry and environmental science that I was looking for.
- Joshua Cole: I first got involved through the group Virginia Initiative on Cosmic Origins or VICO. I applied to this fellowship during my first year and chose some of the projects that were interesting to me. Several had aspects of both chemistry and astronomy, which led me to become a part of professor Garrod’s group.
- Malcolm: I chose to work in the Hilinski Lab because of my interest in synthetic organic chemistry. I took Dr. Hilinski’s Organic Chemistry III and IV courses last year, and through discussion of complex mechanisms and the usage of synthesis to generate complex molecules, I wanted to learn how such achievements were accomplished in practice. I find the Hilinski group’s focus on organo-catalysis fascinating, especially in contrast to the inorganic catalysis material I am learning about in my current courses.
- What projects have you worked on while participating in undergraduate research?
- James: I have been working on catalyzing urea oxidation for cleaner hydrogen production and for use in fuel cells. Hydrogen is a promising alternative energy source to fossil fuels because it does not generate greenhouse gasses as a byproduct of its consumption. However, hydrogen production methods, like water-splitting, can be inefficient and energetically expensive. Urea electrolysis can produce hydrogen with less required energy than water electrolysis, but the efficiency is limited by the rate of the urea oxidation half reaction, which proceeds through six electron transfer steps. I’ve been analyzing the effectiveness of metallophthalocyanine complexes with earth-abundant metal centers on urea oxidation. Phthalocyanines are well-known, stable, and easily synthesized aromatic ring systems, and metallophthalocyanines have been shown to catalyze the reduction of nitrogen, CO2, and more. Using earth abundant metals rather than precious metals to catalyze urea oxidation reduces the environmental impact involved in obtaining the metals.
- Joshua Cole: My main project first year involved astrochemical modelling to study the collisions between identical dust grains in astronomical environments that are covered in water ice. The chemistry that occurs on these dust grains in the Interstellar Medium (ISM) are critical to describing chemical evolution of the material which forms stars and solar systems. The various ices (H2O, CO, NH3) formed or accreted onto the grains can act via intermolecular forces to help keep colliding grains from separating and lead to coagulation and likely formation of planets. Since my first summer, I have worked with my PI to expand these modelling situations to apply to different sized icy dust grains as well as to fine tune the molecular dynamic framework that conducts these simulations. Additionally, more data analysis has been conducted in order to learn more about the energy, temperature, and mass loss of the molecules of the ices involved with these collisions.
- Malcolm: My current project concerns investigation of a novel method of synthesizing seven membered nitrogen heterocycles through a 2-aza-Cope rearrangement. This class of compounds is a privileged scaffold among pharmaceutical drugs, and a simple, stereoselective synthesis could offer new avenues in drug design.
- How would you explain what kind of activities have been involved in with your research?
- James: On a normal day, I can be found running cyclic voltammetry scans (or troubleshooting!) with a potentiostat and a rotating disk electrode (RDE). I make up solutions of the different metallophthalocyanine and cast them directly on to an electrode surface. I analyze what effects different metal centers, binding agents, solution mixtures, and other variable parameters on urea oxidation catalysis. I’ll also be working up my data, trading sarcasm with Emma, taking an enthusiastic trip to the stock room with Amelia, or playing metal music through the desktop speakers.
- Joshua Cole: Although the activities mostly involve using the computer, there are a variety of activities involved with my research. In my earliest stages, first starting in astrochemistry, a great deal of my time involved learning background information through review papers and research papers as well as listening to the presentations by other researchers associated with the field, including other group members. Additionally, I went in with very little coding experience, so I had to gain a working knowledge with a coding language (I chose FORTRAN 77 as my PI codes in this language). Following the initial startup period in the field, a lot of work involves starting and managing different computer models and their data outputs. There are several different machines (efficient/multi-core computers for calculation) available to the research group. More recently, I have been working on smaller section of the Rivanna Supercomputing Cluster, running models, and downloading data outputs after the models of the collisions finish running. To qualitatively describe what these models represent, time also involves converting these data outputs into images and videos of the dust grains colliding. To obtain other information about the dust grain collisions, I write code to abstract information from these models such as vibrational and rotational energy. Other activities not directly involved with active research involve working on my research paper and collaborating/presenting to my group and to others in the field. I am learning how to write research papers and how to use LaTeX. I have been able to give several presentations to members of VICO and those in astrochemistry at UVa/NRAO.
- Malcolm: Most of my time in the lab is spent running chemical reactions, purifying the products, and using analytical techniques to investigate the results. Recently, I have been running a variety of stereospecific cyclopropanation methods. I generally use such techniques as column chromatography, distillation, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and gas chromatography mass spectrometry.
- Has either your PI or a graduate student/postdoc (or both!) had an impact on you as a mentor? How so?
- James: I can’t believe how lucky I was that the first lab I applied to was chock-full of some of the brightest, kindest, and funniest people I’ve ever met! Emma and Amelia took time out of their busy PhD candidate lives to train me up over the summer, and they’re some of my favorite people here on Grounds. Dr. Shelby Hooe also helped train me over the summer, both in lab and when bantering with Professor Machan. And Professor Machan himself puts a lot of effort into involving undergraduate students in the research and is super welcoming and down to earth. He can also fire back with a quip or joke almost immediately, so he keeps me on my A game.
- Joshua Cole: Both my PI and the graduate students of the group have been extremely helpful and impactful. Professor Garrod has given me a great deal of advice about the in’s and out’s of research as well as help navigating studying astrophysics and chemistry. I have had the opportunity to learn and practice skills in research with Professor Garrod that I know will valuable outside of this specific research opportunity, and I am very grateful. The graduate students have been helpful in their advice about research, classes, and in presenting. They are social and welcoming as well, which made it great to transition into the group and to feel included throughout my time researching in the group.
- Malcolm: Rob Dyer, a graduate student in my lab, has had a substantial influence on me during my time here. He has encouraged me to pursue my interests by attending seminars and reading organic literature, which has helped me to broaden and refine my interests. He has also motivated me to take difficult chemistry courses and apply to fellowships. I am very grateful for his friendship.
- How do you believe undergraduate research is preparing you for your career after UVA?
- James: My work in the Machan Lab has helped me realize how I want to combine saving the planet with my interests in chemistry, and it has been super rewarding to apply the fundamentals I’ve picked up in lectures to something more important than homework or an exam. I’m also learning inorganic and electro chemistry through this research and developing the necessary lab and data skills that come with them.
- Joshua Cole: The undergraduate research has been very helpful in preparing me for a career after UVA. I think there have been a combination of applicable skills that I have learned and practiced throughout my time conducting undergraduate research that will transfer over to graduate school and further research. Learning how to write and understand code is essential in many STEM fields in the current day and practicing this skill in undergraduate research has helped me develop this ability. Giving presentations and learning to write research papers will be useful no matter what field of specific research I will pursue following my undergrad at UVA. Additionally, working in a collaborative environment amongst my PI and other group members along with those in the field at UVa and other institutions has also prepared me to become adjusted to this environment and make the most out of the advice and questions from others.
- Malcolm: Undergraduate research has helped me to differentiate my interests within chemistry. When I first joined the lab, I had no idea what I wanted to study. Now I am confident that I want a career in synthetic organic chemistry. This experience has also helped me become more prepared for graduate school. Through working on a research project, attending literature reviews in lab meeting, and talking with graduate students and Dr. Hilinski, I feel that I am much better equipped to tackle grad school.
- What advice do you have for someone wanting to get involved with undergraduate research?
- James: Look through the research being done in various departments – you don’t have to stick to just one! And when you’ve found various projects that interest you, email some professors! Express why you’re interested in their work and start a dialogue. No matter what happens, it’s always good to form relationships with people in your area of interest!
- Joshua Cole: I would give them the advice to not be afraid if you don’t come in with all of the skills and knowledge that you need. Many people are willing to teach you and help prepare you to do the research you are interested in.
- Malcolm: My advice for undergraduates interested in research would be to not be passive in research. Working in a lab is unique experience compared to classes and the other aspects of undergraduate life. Talk to graduate students, and especially your PI, and be active in learning how to predict, perform, and analyze in your work. If you simply show up, do experiments, and go home, you will be doing yourself a disservice.