Elaine Liu Receives ARCS Award

Elaine Liu
Elaine Liu

Elaine Liu (MacBeth Group) has been awarded an Advancing Science in America or ARCS Fellowship. The ARCS Foundation advances science and technology in the United States by providing financial awards to academically outstanding U.S. citizens studying to complete degrees in science, engineering and medical research. The awards are focused on helping researchers at the startup or “seed stage” of their work and discovery.

Elaine’s project is titled “Elucidating the mechanism of cobalt-mediated C-H functionalization.” She will investigate how to make more reliable, less expensive catalysts for sustainable use in chemical and pharmaceutical synthesis, potentially making life-saving drugs more accessible and affordable. 

In her own words, Elaine explains: “Organic chemists have shown the utility of readily available cobalt in catalyzing cross-coupling reactions by providing a relatively fast, simple, and high yield pathway for these reactions. However, the catalytic step has not been well characterized, leading to a trial-and-error approach in its implementation. By studying the cobalt-based reactivity in a step-wise manner, the mechanism and mechanistic requirements of the activation event can be mapped out. Elucidating the activation requirements will, in turn, allow for more targeted and complex carbon cross-coupling reactions.”

Elaine’s research advisor, Cora MacBeth, highlights the way that Elaine’s research takes advantage of the resources of the Emory University Center for X-ray Crystallography.  “Her studies have focused on understanding the step-wise bond forming processes by analyzing stoichiometric transformations using spectroscopy and single molecule X-ray diffraction – in collaboration with the X-ray Crystallography Center at Emory.  Her research has helped identify previously unreported (and un-proposed) intermediates in these catalytic processes.  She will use these findings to aid in the development of new reactions.”

The ARCS Award is an unrestricted $7,500 award given directly to the scientist and may be renewed for up to three years. In addition to advancing her research, Elaine plans to use the ARCS award to expand her outreach efforts in the Atlanta community. Outside the lab, Elaine is the vice President of Outreach and Academic Affairs for Pi Alpha Chemical Society.  The group frequently visits local elementary schools and museums to share science demos. Elaine plans to create a blog that will catalog these chemistry demonstrations and lectures. “[I] would like to keep track of what worked and what concepts were suited to the children as well as make these experiments and their materials accessible for home schooled students and students in underfunded and underprivileged schools.” A blog will also be an opportunity for Elaine to share her experiences as a woman scientist, raising the visibility of women scientists more generally and contributing to diversity in outreach as well as in research.

After Emory, Elaine hopes to teach at a primarily undergraduate institution, sharing her love of chemistry with another generation. 

Congratulations, Elaine!

New PhD Student Sara Gebre Profiled by Emory News

New PhD student Sara Gebre was included in Laney Graduate School’s annual round-up of new graduate students!

From the article:

Hometown: Palmyra, Pennsylvania

Emory degree program: PhD in chemistry

Completed degrees: BS in chemistry, Haverford College

Focus of scholarship: I want to focus on using laser spectroscopy techniques to characterize different materials and proteins. Basically what this mean is that I want to use lasers to be able to learn more about the properties of materials (used in things like solar or fuel cells, for example) and how proteins move or act in a certain environment.

Why it matters: I worked with infrared spectroscopy (IR) in college to look at a certain functional group bound to a model peptide. I became really interested in the use of IR and wanted to expand my skillset and be able to use laser spectroscopy to look at proteins and materials of interest. I think this is important because understanding the material or protein you’re using is the first step in developing more efficient energy materials or drugs for diseases. It’s also useful for possibly understanding similar protein systems or compounds.

Proudest academic achievement to date: I published a paper from my time working in Dr. Vern Schramm’s lab this past year. I had been accepted to the PREP program (post baccalaureate) at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and used that as a gap year to get more lab experience and figure out what other research topics I was interested in. It was an awesome experience. My PI and lab members helped me with everything and I had a lot of support, which I’m grateful for.

Read the whole thing at the Emory News Center.

Congratulations, Sara!

Student Spotlight: Chem Mentor Sunidhi Ramesh

Sunidhi Ramesh
Sunidhi Ramesh

Early mentoring experiences solidified Sunidhi Ramesh’s desire to pursue a career in medicine.

“I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was four,” she explains. That was the age when she started accompanying her favorite uncle on visits to his medical practice in a small, rural village in India. Her uncle’s clinic “was so different from any clinic or hospital that you would see here. It was quiet, and he was often the only person working there.” In that small space, she saw her uncle having a big impact.

“He used to give out free medicine. If he had patients who were homeless, he wouldn’t charge them. It was a very humbling process. He would be tired at the end of the day, but he’d be happy. I noticed that really quickly.”

Sunidhi’s interest in medicine eventually led her to the strong STEM programs at Emory. As a first year student, she struggled with time management—understandable considering she was involved in an array of activities, from writing for The Wheel to performing on a Bollywood dance team. Attending Chem Mentor tutoring sessions helped her to slow down and learn to budget her time.

“Chem Mentors kind of forced me to sit down and say, ‘Okay, these two hours are just for chemistry problems.’ I could figure out what I was comfortable with and what I wasn’t comfortable with and study from there. It gave me a baseline,” says Sunidhi.

Now, Sunidhi—a double major in Neuroscience and Sociology—is a Chem Mentor, helping other students to enhance their experience in Chem 141 and 142.

Sunidhi works on chemistry concepts with students (l-r) Mary, Farris, and Yasmin.
Sunidhi works on chemistry concepts with students (l-r) Mary, Farris, and Yasmin.

Chem Mentors are upper level students who provide weekly tutoring sessions to students enrolled in “Gen Chem.” Students who apply to be mentors must have completed Gen Chem classes at Emory with a grade of A- or better and are required to submit a reference from an Emory professor. Selected students undergo training and are also required to attend Gen Chem class sessions—helping to refresh their content knowledge and allowing them to serve as an in-class resource to students taking the class for the first time.

The tutoring sessions are the heart of the program, giving Chem Mentors responsibility for their peers’ learning. Mentors must develop their own approach to the material and lead sessions independently. Sunidhi says that one of the challenges is finding ways to help students who have different levels of comfort with the material under review. She’s learned not to make assumptions about what students already know; when students do show mastery, she will often keep them engaged by asking them to teach the material to others who are struggling. Her own experience with Chem Mentors has showed her that teaching material can help to solidify complex concepts even for students who have a firm grasp on course content.

“You benefit from teaching someone and learning how to explain the problem and someone else benefits from hearing it from another person,” she says.

The challenges from the program have given her a new respect for the professors who deal with these kinds of issues every day. “I’m a lot more sympathetic with professors now!”

At the same time, Sunidhi and her fellow Chem Mentors are able to use their role to help other students feel more comfortable with their professors. “Sometimes students aren’t as comfortable going to [the faculty] with questions. During our sessions, they come to us and we try to refer them to their professors to make them more comfortable with going to office hours; first years, especially, are very anxious. They think they can’t go to office hours unless they have a good question to ask.”

Director of Undergraduate Studies Dr. Doug Mulford praises Sunidhi’s commitment. “Sunidhi has been a model mentor helping countless students understand the material in Chemistry 141 and 142.  She relates to them as one who has been there herself.” Dr. Tracy McGill adds: “The Chem Mentors themselves are what make the program so outstanding.  Having a peer who has succeeded in the course earlier and can model tenacity, patience, and a methodical approach to breaking down a complex problem is invaluable to our students’ success.”

Sunidhi’s commitment to mentoring extends beyond chemistry. She mentors high school students through Emory Pipeline, a program that seeks to build awareness of STEM careers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and she has also served as an Orientation Leader twice. “I think it’s a rewarding experience to be a mentor in general,” she says. “You get to see things from a different perspective.”

With Chem Mentors, Sunidhi is often pleasantly surprised by what she has retained from Gen Chem. “Sometimes I’m surprised that I still remember how to do the problem! I think those kinds of surprises combined with the reward of having to teach a class and seeing students have that ‘a-ha’ moment where they realize how a concept works—those are the rewards that line up and make it a good program.”

Maybe some of Sunidhi’s drive to mentor others comes from her own experience finding her way. “We kind of had to Guinea pig our way through everything,” she says, describing the way that she and her family have approached her goal of being a doctor. Both of her parents are immigrants from India and she is the oldest child, trying to forge a path through a very different educational system.  As she’s progressed—and continued to teach others—that path has become more and more clear.

“I don’t know anything else I can do,” she says. “Medicine is what I love.”

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Interested in being a ChemMentor? Applications for the 2016-2017 school year will be accepted this coming Spring. Students who have earned an A or A- in their chemistry courses are eligible to apply. Selected mentors are required to enroll in Chem 392R, the Chem Mentor training course. Dr. Tracy McGill says: “Chem Mentors is an exciting opportunity for undergraduate students to develop their leadership skills, work with their peers, deepen their understanding of chemistry concepts, and build relationships with faculty mentors.” Contact Dr. McGill or Dr. Mulford with questions.

 

 

Graduate Student Spotlight: Yang Liu Develops a New Method for Chemistry with “Roots” in Biology

Yang Liu in the lab. Photo provided by Yang Liu.
Yang Liu in the lab. Photo provided by Yang Liu.

Yang Liu (Salaita Group) is bringing new techniques to the emerging field of mechanobiology; at the same time, he’s returning to his roots.

Literally. As in, plants.

Yang’s father is an academic biologist studying agriculture in China.

“I think in the beginning, my dad really wanted me to be a biologist,” says Yang. “But normally kids don’t want to pursue the same career path as their parents.”

As an undergraduate in China, Yang started out studying mechanical engineering. Then, he attended a general chemistry lecture with a famous chemistry professor who made a convincing case for the importance of the discipline. “He said, ‘chemistry is the central science connecting physical sciences, life sciences and applied sciences all together,’’ says Yang. “And I was so fascinated by it. And I changed my major.”

At Emory, Yang joined the lab of Khalid Salaita. His research in the Salaita Group takes a novel approach to a common scientific question: how does the immune system recognizes and eliminates “invaders”, such as pathogens or cancer cells? Most research explores how chemical signals mediate this process. Yang’s work expands on existing work in the Salaita Group that focuses on mechanical signaling—the way that immune cells physically probe their targets within the body. “Cells can touch and apply forces to one another,” explains Yang, a process he refers to as a “handshake.” Yang’s research develops tools that allow scientists to “see” these kinds of physical interactions.

Gold nanoparticle (yellow) with elastic spring molecules (gray) bound to a fluorophore and ligand (black). When a ligand binds to a membrane receptor (cyan), the spring “pulls” and the fluorophore elicits a signal (bright white).
Gold nanoparticle (yellow) with elastic spring molecules (gray) bound to a fluorophore and ligand (black). When a ligand binds to a membrane receptor (cyan), the spring “pulls” and the fluorophore elicits a signal (bright white). Photo provided by Yang Liu.

Specifically, Yang has developed a technique named molecular tension fluorescence microscopy (MTFM) that employs single elastic molecules—DNA, protein, and polymer— as sensors to visualize membrane receptor mediated forces at the piconewton level. “One piconewton is the weight of one trillionth of an apple and surprisingly, pN forces regulate biochemical signaling pathways,” says Yang. These forces are too small for scientists to measure using conventional methods. Existing tools aren’t sensitive enough or they are inefficient.

“Until our method kicks in,” says Yang.

Yang has combined nanotechnology and the “easy” surface chemistry of gold nanoparticles to make MTFM probes more effective. “These gold particle sensors are spring scales at nanoscale ,” says Yang. “Compared to previous techniques, these probes are of significantly enhanced sensitivity, stability and amenable for detecting forces mediated by almost all kinds of cell receptors.”

The improvements have caught the attention of researchers in other Emory units—and even nationally and internationally. Yang has collaborated with the Evavold Lab in the Department of Immunology at Emory to help them measure mechanical forces mediated by different immune cells. He also has collaborators from as far away as New York and Germany.

Regarding these collaborations, Yang says: “The need to be trained [to use this method] is very high. The method is not hard, it’s easy. So people usually spend a few days and they should be able to master it…and we still maintain quite tight collaboration. We not only teach them how to make it, we actually get involved in the scientific questions they care about and continue this collaboration.”

Recently, Yang’s success in developing the new method was recognized with the department’s highest graduate student honor, the Quayle Outstanding Student Award. Speaking of Yang’s progress shortly after the award ceremony, advisor Khalid Salaita praised Yang’s work ethic as well as his science: “Yang was a real pleasure to have in the lab. He was incredibly thoughtful, well read, and intensely motivated. More than anyone else I’ve worked with, Yang displayed a keen instinct for experimental design. He spent countless hours in the dark microscope room collecting data and working around the clock fueled up with his favorite bbq Pringles and excited by the science.”

The award ceremony was followed swiftly by another milestone—a successful PhD defense. Next, Yang is headed to John’s Hopkins University where he will work in the lab of Dr. Taekjip Ha, a world leader in the development of single molecule fluorescence microscopy and force spectroscopy.

Salaita Group "Logo"
Salaita Group Logo

Yang’s pioneering research wasn’t always smooth sailing. “I didn’t get my first experiment done until the first semester of my third year. Everything before that didn’t work.” He credits his perseverance to his father’s example—“agriculture is even slower, waiting for the growth of plants. You can only do two experiments a year!”—as well as his own scientific curiosity. His advisor, Khalid Salaita, was also an inspiration throughout the process. “He is always passionate and ignited my love for science. You love it and you work hard to make something meaningful to the society and also make yourself valuable, so, that’s what I’d like to do and that’s because of these two people.”

Does all this mean that Yang has overcome his initial reluctance to follow in his father’s footsteps towards biology?

“I think I’m going back to the route, mining chemistry, biology. In the beginning I was against it, but I do like it.” Still, chemistry has his heart. “Chemists not only create new tools, new theories and new materials, but also create new opportunities. And if you want to study biology as a chemist, there are some advantages too because you can understand and explore the secret of life at the molecular level.”

Student Spotlight: PN Ligands and Parks at Penn

By: Juan D. Cisneros (EC ’17)

I had the pleasure of spending this past summer at the University of Pennsylvania in the lab of Professor Daniel J. Mindiola as a visiting scholar. My time in the lab was insightful and inspiring; I worked with some brilliant minds on some fascinating chemistry and left with a new knowledge of lab techniques and fond memories.

Having visited Philly briefly just once before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the city. I was pleasantly surprised at how vibrant and friendly West Philadelphia welcomed me. City streets were trafficked by commuters and delicious food trucks. In order to keep my close relationship to the food trucks healthy, I began to run every evening.

Boathouse Row on my evening run. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.
Boathouse Row on my evening run. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

Fairmount Park and the Philadelphia Park system is the largest landscaped urban park in the world and I explored a good bit of it during my stay. I also ran with the West Philly chapter of BoMF (Back on My Feet) on Monday mornings and participated in the Papa Gary 10k that finished at the historic Rocky Steps!

Finish Line at the Rocky Steps – 2016 Papa Gary Father’s Day Run. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros
Finish Line at the Rocky Steps – 2016 Papa Gary Father’s Day Run. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

When I wasn’t running off the calories to keep a Kfoodtruck, I was adapting to the new layer of neoprene hugging my hands and arms. I worked with Group IV metals with the goal of creating nitride complexes supported by a varying PN ligand. Working with highly pyrophoric compounds taught me valuable safety protocol and also some new techniques (Electron Paramagnetic Resonance, Variable Temperature NMR, et al.).  The bulk of my synthetic trials involved scaling up varying PN ligands and the constructing the complexes supported by these ligands. I began with Titanium and the Mesitylene substituted PN ligand and later worked with the 1,3,5-triisopropylbenzene substituted PN Ligand in hopes of obtaining better crystals further down the synthesis. I also experimented my trials with Hafnium and Zirconium, below are some x-rays of aforementioned complexes.

Ti-nitride (left) and ZrNH (right)
Ti-nitride (left) and ZrNH (right). Click here to view Juan’s research poster.

The workload in the Mindiola Lab was intense, but the people were friendly and supportive. Through our countless hours in lab, we developed a covalent level of friendship and I am looking forward to the point where our careers cross paths again.

Glove box in the Mindiola Lab. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.
Glove box in the Mindiola Lab. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

My last day at Penn, a few of us drove to the MetLife Stadium in the boss’s Passat and watched the sold-out FC Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid match with 82,000 other soccer enthusiasts. It was the perfect outing to celebrate a summer of hard work and breakthrough (Real unsurprisingly won).

Metlife Stadium. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.
Metlife Stadium. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

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metlife-stadiumJuan D. Cisneros (pictured far left) is a chemistry and Spanish double major at Emory from Coconut Creek, Florida. Previously, he wrote for The Lab Report about his experiences studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain. Juan is also an IMSD undergraduate scholar and edits the IMSD blog.

Graduate Student Spotlight: Chen Liang Sows Seeds of Change

Chen Liang (second from right) pictured at a celebration for SEED graduates. Photo provided by Chen Liang.
Chen Liang (second from right) pictured at a celebration for SEED graduates. Photo provided by Chen Liang.

If Chen Liang (Lynn Group) sees a problem in need of a solution, she’ll create one. In Fall 2012, not long after moving to Atlanta from China to start graduate school, Chen volunteered with refugee families in Clarkston, GA and was struck by the challenges that children and their families were facing. “I was shocked to see children a couple of miles from me are living without matching shoes and suffering from hunger.”

Chen knew what the solution needed to be—“The best way to change the life of an under-served child is through education,” she explains. That insight led Chen to enlist the support of Barbara Coble in Emory’s Center for Community Engagement and Leadership. Dr. Coble was already running a program—Graduation Generation—focused on outreach to under-served students in Atlanta public schools. Together, they created the Student Educational Experience Program (SEED), to provide those same students with greater access to science education, including tutoring, workshops, and information on science careers and higher education.

The partnership with Dr. Coble got Project SEED off the ground, but there were still plenty of logistics to be worked out. “I started cold-calling many presidents of other clubs to learn their funding process and how to write a charter. I also spread my idea around the chemistry department and my friends and successfully convinced some to join SEED.” The majority of SEED’s original members are from the Department of Chemistry, although the program now includes students and faculty from biology and physics, among others.

Barbara Coble praises Chen for her commitment and vision. “Chen is an outstanding community engagement practitioner with a uniquely humble, yet fiercely determined spirit. She works diligently to connect Emory students and university resources to these students.” Reflecting on her experiences working with Dr. Coble, Chen echoes that same praise. “When I had the idea of SEED, I brought it to her and she liked it and helped a lot during the founding process. Dr. Coble never gives up. Her persistency and upbeat spirit encourages me a lot when things get rough for SEED.”

Part of the brilliance of Project SEED’s design is that it draws on the impressive scientific resources Emory already has in place—particularly the expertise of its students. “We would all reach out to different clubs and professors, share SEED’s mission, and ask them to give students one hour sessions on various subjects,” explains Chen. Over time, SEED participants from Emory have built relationships with the students they serve, particularly students from Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School.

Deeabe* is one of those students. She recently joined SOAR, a branch of SEED led by undergraduate Lexy Dantzler that connects students with research experiences in Emory labs, and started working on research in the lab of Dr. Meleah Hickman in the Department of Biology. “Deeabe’s family is not wealthy and her mom had breast cancer a couple of years ago. Despite the family situation, she is driven and hardworking,” says Chen. “She has received a scholarship from Pearls of Purpose and will be attending Georgia State this fall. That’s what I want SEED to be—an extra hand to help these students achieve their dreams.”

Despite Project SEED’s remarkable scope, it is far from Chen’s only contribution during her time at Emory. She has also served as a Student Ambassador for the Laney Graduate School, working to connect Emory students with professional development resources.

“Chen organized a fantastic program with the co-founder and CEO of Oystir, Rudy Bellani, who presented via Skype to a large group of students about what employers are looking for from STEM PhDs. Chen has always been a reliable source of ideas and feedback for the LGS as she is committed to her own academic and professional success as well as the success of her colleagues and future LGS students,” says Sarah Peterson, Laney’s Assistant Program Director for LGS Career Resources.

Chen also led an initiative to better connect science PhDs with career opportunities in consulting. Once again, the project stemmed from her recognition of an unfulfilled need—she saw that consulting firms that recruited at Emory focused largely on the professional schools, such as Rollins or Goizueta, despite the availability of PhDs with broad training in science and health issues. Chen took on the presidency of Emory’s dormant Advanced Degree Consulting Club (ADCC), reviving and expanding the organization and reaching out to consulting firms.  Now, several of those firms regularly recruit from Emory’s talented pool of science PhDs and ADCC has rich resources to help PhDs pursue a career in consulting.

How does Chen balance these many outreach accomplishments with her research work? A lot of it comes down to time management. “I have learned to plan my day down to every hour,” says Chen. “Sometimes, I have to work twelve hours a day or work on weekends to fulfill requirements from both sides; but in general, my research and extracurricular work complement each other. The achievement from SEED energizes me and motivates me to excel in research; my TA and research experience, as well as my network in academia helps me improve SEED as a program.”

It also helps to have a supportive research advisor in Dr. David Lynn. “Chen is a remarkably passionate and caring individual, committed to making a difference with her research and through her ability to contribute to the education of others,” says Dr. Lynn. “Her community outreach to young Atlanta children through SEED is changing her colleagues and our faculty. One of my entire classes for Emory 1st year college students was built on the outreach infrastructure she helped develop. Chen has already created a powerful and lasting mark on her Atlanta community and has the potential to change our world at a time when her compassion for humanity is so much in need.”

Even in Chen’s research, her desire to explore what’s missing and maximize her understanding of what is possible is apparent. (Click here to read more about Chen’s research!) Her research seeks to contribute to the search for more effective therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease by exploring amyloid proteins, hypothesized to cause the progression of the disease. Her work on amyloids resulted in a first author paper in JACS in 2014. After she completes the PhD at Emory, Chen plans to draw on her training to contribute broadly to the field of life science and education. Project SEED, shored up by her hard work, will continue after Chen graduates. “One of the biggest challenges ahead for SEED will be to fill Chen’s shoes, as the President, when she graduates,” says Dr. Coble.

*The student’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

First Person: From Atwood to Abroad

“I got the chance to see more countries in these five months than Fluorine has electrons”

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View of the Cathedral from a Christian monastery’s garden in the heart of Salamanca. Photo by Juan Cisneros.
View of the Cathedral from a Christian monastery’s garden in the heart of Salamanca. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

By: Juan D. Cisneros (Emory College of Arts and Sciences)

Entering my penultimate year in the College, I signed up to spend a semester in Spain through Emory’s Center for International Programs Abroad (CIPA). Choosing to major in both chemistry and Spanish at Emory has given me the opportunity to develop two vastly different ways of understanding and appreciating the world around me. My original thoughts on a semester abroad were that it would be spent adjusting to cultural differences and touring historical monuments – learning in a pleasant yet unscientific manner. However, when I spoke to former CIPA enrollees, they detailed their experiences in a fashion strikingly similar to that of a young researcher presenting their work at a conference for the first time. Adjusting to, and incorporating yourself within an entirely new academic setting seemed not only daunting, but dependent on the spread of skills and applied knowledge. Deciphering a restaurant menu would be one thing, but integrating myself within an academic community and excelling among newfound peers would be another. It would be a chance to apply what I’ve learned in my language and culture courses in an analytical fashion. Their enthusiasm resonated with me and so my decision was made. I landed in Madrid the first week of 2016.

During my five month stay, I was enrolled at the Universidad de Salamanca, just two hours west of Madrid. Founded in 1218, it is the oldest standing Spanish university and overflows with jaw-dropping buildings and a rich and royal history. Most of my classes were held in the Palacio de Anaya, a neoclassical palace just steps away from the Cathedral (pictured above). Whether on foot or on my motorcycle, I always enjoyed the to and from commute to class. It did take some time to acclimate to the very different Spanish undergraduate routine – classes splattered throughout the day from 09:00 and 22:00.

In one of my courses within the Department of Philology, titled Scientific Research Writing, I developed a cross cultural analysis paper on Green Chemistry over the length of my stay. The idea originated when I had to drop the course Bromatología: Analytical Chemistry in Food Processing due to a conflict in my mandatory course schedule and longed for some basic science learning. The paper itself was partly informed by my research on the current standards of research labs in certain European and South American countries and their efforts towards more sustainable chemistry. The analysis was based on a survey I developed of Principal Investigators and post-docs from these labs as well as current literature. Writing science in another language proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated, but with the help of my tutor and the faculty within the Department of Chemical Engineering and Philology at USAL, I was able to complete my work and gain valuable insight on how the perception of sustainable chemistry and engineering in foreign countries is formed and processed. One surprising difference is how some European nations that are not part of the EU have less interest in funding these types of labs and how scarce undergraduate involvement in research is across Europe compared to in the U.S.

My faithful two wheeled companion on many weekend adventures. Photo by Juan Cisneros.
My faithful two wheeled companion on many weekend adventures. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

In addition to my coursework, I worked remotely for the National Hansen’s Disease Program TravelWell Clinic at Emory Midtown Hospital. My job was to organize data flowing in from a recent pilot on a developing project involving associated disability variables of Mycobacterium leprae. I first got involved in this project during the fall semester but it was not until I was in Spain that the vital pieces of data began to emerge. With bi-monthly Skype calls and some dedicated research time, I was able to move the project along and submit an abstract to the 2016  American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene National Conference for an oral presentation, titled “Preventing Mycobacterium leprae – associated disability: Identifying social and clinical factors associated with nerve damage in an endemic area of Brazil.”

Tasting hydro-alcoholic solutions in Porto, Portugal. Photo by Juan Cisneros.
Tasting hydro-alcoholic solutions in Porto, Portugal. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

When I wasn’t working on these aforementioned responsibilities – often from my unofficial office in my favorite Café-bar – I got the chance to see more countries in these five months than Fluorine has electrons. I could fill 6.0221409×1023 posts with all the pictures and videos I took but some of the highlights were touring the Spanish countryside on a motorcycle, hiking Portuguese mountains, cliff-diving in Majorca, running a half marathon through the streets of Athens, and doing a lap on the world famous and adrenaline-inducing Nürburgring. I am very grateful for my study abroad experience and am excited to be back home, bringing with me a broader understanding of how sustainable chemistry, and science in general, is viewed in foreign cultures as well as treasured memories. I am eager to be back in lab this summer as a visiting scholar in the lab of Professor Dan Mindiola at the University of Pennsylvania.

Student Spotlight: Ryan Fan Reflects on his “Summer in Siena”

From L to R, Alexis Kosiak, Ryan Fan, and Alex Nazzari visting the lab of Gianluca Giorgi, a collaborator of Emory chemist Vince Conticello, at the University of Siena.
From L to R, Alexis Kosiak, Ryan Fan, and Alex Nazzari visting the lab of Gianluca Giorgi, a collaborator of Emory chemist Vince Conticello, at the University of Siena.

“Sprawling in Siena”

By: Ryan Fan (Emory College)

Without a data plan or service to access a map, and with street signs posted on obscure buildings rather than poles, roaming around Rome turned a “15 minute walk” to our hotel into an hour of circling the same street over and over again. “Well, this is going to be difficult,” I thought as I entered my hotel room, passing out from jet lag. I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t continue to feel as lost and disoriented as I did on that first day.

Thankfully, most of the study abroad experience in Italy went better than my first hour in Rome. “Getting lost” turned into culturally-motivated wandering—from the Coliseum to the Vatican Museum to the 551 steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. My personal favorite experience was climbing the Basilica to see the view of Rome’s skyline. But it wasn’t solely a race to the top – climbing the dome was special for what you see on the way. At about 200 steps, you get a birds-eye view into the Basilica. Pilgrims travel thousands of miles to see the work of artists like Michelangelo and the crypts of Paul and Peter. The whole climb, from start to finish, was a privilege.

Studying chemistry in Italy gave me a behind-the-scenes view of some of what goes into restoring and protecting the kind of art that I admired in the Basilica . One thing we studied in particular was the use of lasers to restore art and architecture. I have always thought of art as purely a humanities discipline. However, we learned that while artists are the ones to make beauty, scientists are needed to help preserve it. Every time a piece of art needs to be restored, it requires an entire team of art and science experts. Part of their goal is to make the smallest amount of alterations possible while restoring a piece. As a chemistry and creative writing double major, this changed my perception that my two fields of study are mutually exclusive. Rather, they can co-exist together to form the best possible product. This also happens in developing makeup, making art supplies, and authenticating pieces of art.

We arrived in Siena, a city in Tuscany on May 27, 2016. One of my favorite things about Siena was the massive hills. As a cross country runner, I found no shortage of places to run because of the hills, which increase the difficulty of my training. The central square, El Piazza Del Campo, is the heart of the city with tourists and native residents alike picnicking at every hour of the day. El Piazza houses a biannual historical race known as the Palio di Siena. This is a horse race with 10 jockeys, each representing a contrada, or district, of the city. A victory brings tremendous pride and celebration to a contrada. After six weeks of living in Siena, we ended our program by attending this raucous event alongside nearly 50,000 other spectators. Of course, as an Emory student-athlete, I support the Eagle contrada.

The only complaint I have about the Summer in Siena program is that it goes by too fast. It feels like just a second ago that I was feeling lost and nervous in Rome. I initially went on this trip just to study chemistry, but I’ve learned so much more about art, culture, and collaboration between the arts and sciences on the way. When I get home, I plan to try to convince my mom that we should take a trip to Italy as a family–that’s the only way I can truly show them how great this experience was.

Interested in applying to for the “Summer in Siena” program? Details are available on the Center for International Programs Abroad (CIPA) website.

Graduate Student Spotlight: Brian Hays (Widicus Weaver Group) Wins ACS Astrochemistry Dissertation Award

Brian Hays. Photo provided by Brian Hays.
Brian Hays. Photo provided by Brian Hays.

Brian Hays (Widicus Weaver Group) is honest when asked what it was like to write his dissertation. “The dissertation writing process was grueling,” he says. “I rewrote it several times and stayed up all night for many nights.” Developing the dissertation project was also a challenge. “There were a lot of challenges to getting the PhD, many of them experimental. Usually they involved something that had never been experienced before in the lab, and we would have to learn a new skill and apply it immediately to research.”

That hard work paid off. Brian successfully defended his thesis in April 2015 and in May 2016 he was announced as the winner of the American Chemical Society’s Astrochemistry Dissertation Award for 2016. The award is intended to promote the emerging discipline of Astrochemistry within the PHYS Division of the ACS by recognizing an outstanding recent Ph.D. thesis submitted by an Astrochemistry Subdivision member. Brian will receive a $500 award and will give an invited presentation at the August 2016 ACS Meeting in Philadelphia.

Speaking to Brian, it’s clear that hard work and challenges on the road to the dissertation were met with a spirit of discovery and determination. “It was always very exciting to dive into something new [ . . . ] I was looking forward to building an experiment from scratch.” “Something new” for Brian included the development of novel spectroscopic methods that increased scanning speed by almost 100 times, leading to faster results.  Mentoring support from advisor Susanna Widicus Weaver also made the journey towards the PhD easier. “Susanna was the person at Emory who most helped me towards getting the PhD,” says Brian. “Her mentoring and support is very important to me.”

Photo shows fluorescence from an excimer laser intersecting with molecular source inside a vacuum chamber with infrared beam path coming underneath in the Widicus Weaver Lab. Photo provided by Brian Hays.
Photo shows fluorescence from an excimer laser intersecting with molecular source inside a vacuum chamber with infrared beam path coming underneath in the Widicus Weaver Lab. Photo provided by Brian Hays.

The award-winning research that resulted is “primarily concerned with making and examining unstable molecules that may lead to prebiotic molecules in space.” The research relies on spectroscopic techniques that allow scientists to compare the results of an experiment to astronomical observations of star forming regions. “[We] see if we can make a molecule in the lab and detect it in space,” explains Brian. These techniques allow scientists to make informed observations about far-away regions of space from within the confines of the lab. For Brian, that didn’t completely rule out travel to places far, far away. He took advantage of Professional Development Support funds from the Laney Graduate School to perform astronomical observations in Hawaii.

Currently, Brian is a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue in the lab of Tim Zwier working on chirped pulse microwave spectroscopy. As in the PhD, Brian is seeking new capacities for existing tools “building up [Zwier’s] current instrument towards including mass spectrometry and towards new double resonance techniques.” Their next project will look at processes related to Titan’s atmosphere using these new techniques.

A theme of Brian’s dissertation and postdoctoral work seems to be the excitement he finds in new experiences, techniques, and questions. What does he find most exciting about what’s new and next for the field of astrochemistry? “I am most excited about the proliferation of rotational spectroscopy to more experiments in physical chemistry. This allows for a very high resolution picture of molecules that is state dependent and can be applied in a wide variety of experiments now, including those of astrophysical interest.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graduate Student Spotlight: Robert Kubiak (Davies Group) Awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Robert Kubiak (far right) pictured at on outreach event in March 2016. Photo provided by Pi Alpha Chemical Society.
Robert Kubiak (far right) pictured at on outreach event in March 2016. Photo provided by Pi Alpha Chemical Society.

Graduate students aren’t often tasked with completing that classic elementary school assignment: “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” But Robert Kubiak has a great answer. After being accepted into Emory’s graduate program in chemistry, he got a jump start on his research by completing a summer rotation in the Davies Lab. This experience contributed to his successful application for the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Robert says: “One critical aspect that the reviewers said was helpful in my application was that I had already began to reach out to the community here in Atlanta and take on leadership roles at Emory. Doing a summer rotation before the fall semester was key to making these connections.”

The National Science Foundation received over 17,000 applications this year for the Graduate Research Fellowship program and made 2,000 award offers. As one of the 2016 awardees, Robert will receive three years of tuition and a stipend from NSF. The award is intended to recognize promising scientists at the beginning of their careers, giving them the resources to reach their career goals.

Before starting at Emory, Robert served as a platoon senior medic in the Army’s 3rd Ranger Battalion. He brings this unique leadership experience to his work in chemistry through a commitment to building community using science. “I am really interested in working to introduce scientific conversations to those who may not realize the profound impact science has on every aspect of our daily lives. I hope to encourage young students to embrace scientific discovery and pursue careers in the STEM fields,” he says.

Robert’s research at Emory takes place in the context of the NSF Center for Selective C-H Functionalization. “C–H functionalization is new, relevant, and rapidly changing the way we approach organic synthesis. C–H functionalization bypasses the need for traditional functional groups saving time, money, and reducing the waste associated with synthesis.” Robert’s research project focuses on developing novel catalysts for N-sulfonyltriazoles–nitrogen-based compounds. This research has the potential for broad impact as nitrogen is found everywhere in nature and is an important component of many pharmaceuticals. “Inserting nitrogen through functionalization will save time and money in pharmaceutical synthesis,” explains Robert.

The research also has the potential to lead Robert on new professional adventures. “The CCHF offers a study abroad component, and this research would facilitate a great opportunity to collaborate with the Iatmi group in Japan.” The NSF award also opens up the possibility to participate in NSF’s Graduate Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) program. “I would like to take advantage of GROW to study abroad,” says Kubiak. “It will be an opportunity to develop my ability to teach basic scientific skills—ideally in a community where access to higher scientific education is limited.”

Robert’s proposal was completed in chemistry’s Proposal Writing Course, led by Frank McDonald. Robert says that his experience in the course was “absolutely critical in articulating my past experiences in a meaningful way that made me a competitive applicant.” Robert hopes to draw on the resources of the award to further develop his own mentoring skills. “I plan on working very hard over the next couple of years to develop a robust understanding of organic chemistry, my skills as a research scientist, and my proficiency as a mentor in the field. Fortunately, these goals go hand-in-hand together.”