||Two rising juniors conduct green chemistry research at Centre
Written by Leigh Ivey
DANVILLE, KY— For the past 15 summers, Centre College professor of chemistry Dr. Joe Workman has given Centre students a unique opportunity: to delve into the world of chemistry research with an unusual degree of autonomy.
This summer, rising juniors Ben Cocanougher and Sarah Swauger were given a truly hands-on approach to scientific research in the field of green chemistry.
Though Workman has been collaborating with students each summer since coming to Centre in 1993, he shifted his focus to green chemistry in 1999, when his graduate advisor won the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award.
"Being part of this team spurred me to say to myself that I should probably get into green chemistry," Workman said.
His current project—and the one Swauger and Cocanougher assisted him with this summer—is based on research he began in 2006 with former Centre students Matt Hoskins '08 and Brandon Gish '08.
The first part of the project involves looking into two well known and commonly used organic chemistry reactions and using a class of more environmentally friendly catalysts to initiate the reactions. The second half focuses on the synthesis of a new selective catalyst that the team hopes will be industrially attractive and useful in the synthesis of more complicated molecules, such as pharmaceutical compounds.
The goal of the research is to eliminate or reduce waste and some of the negative environmental impacts (such as the production of hydrochloric acid) that result from the use of conventional catalysts. In hopes of achieving this, the research team used lanthanide metals, catalysts that are rarely used.
"Lanthanide metals were initially hard to isolate, so they weren't as available to be incorporated into catalysts," Workman said. "That's not really the problem today—they're fairly available. Another reason they were rarely used is that the more available ones worked very well, although they weren't great for the environment. Today, we, and others, are turning to lanthanides because they don't produce as much waste, and they seem to have as much activity as the traditional catalysts."
To achieve their goal of more environmentally friendly chemical reactions, Cocanougher and Swauger spent much of the summer conducting research in Centre's Olin Hall—with almost no supervision from Workman.
"Although he was always just down the hall, Dr. Workman really allowed Sarah and me to direct the research," Cocanougher said. "So I've gotten invaluable first-hand experience into how scientific research is done. I know of other people who've done research with professors and were just led along doing mechanical things—just doing what they were told to do. But here, we were given a problem to solve and we solved it ourselves. That's the nice thing about doing research at Centre, especially compared to doing it at larger institutions; we got to completely take the research in the direction we wanted to go."
The ability to virtually self-direct the project would have been impossible without the knowledge of proper investigative techniques. Fortunately, the science classes Swauger and Cocanougher had previously taken at Centre provided them with the background knowledge needed for their work.
Nevertheless, this summer's activity was quite different from the research projects commonly performed during the school year.
"We had the background understanding of the research techniques from having taken organic [chemistry]," Swauger said, "but this summer gave us a much better understanding of the techniques themselves because we were immersed in the research. We were on our own, so we really had to be able to do it ourselves."
Cocanougher agreed, noting that although the science classes "taught us to analyze data in several ways, here we learned new ways to analyze data, and we had to make important decisions, like 'Is this really showing what we want it to show?' It's much more challenging that just following along with what the class is doing in lab."
And, of course, the research is much more involved. "For example," Cocanougher said, "in labs during the year, we might do two TLCs a semester. This summer, we probably did two or three hundred. We did them almost every day."
(TLC, or thin layer chromatography, allows researchers to determine how many different compounds are in a sample, which in turn allows them to monitor the progress of a reaction and determine when the reaction is complete.)
Performing the research with very little supervision was certainly not easy, Swauger and Cocanougher said, yet their struggles with the project were trials that Workman had hoped they would encounter.
"My goal for the students every year," he said, "is to make them get an appreciation for being independent and dealing with frustration on their own. If I were in there with them, we'd get a lot more done, but they'd just be looking over my shoulder. It wouldn't be as valuable for them."
Swauger and Cocanougher did indeed feel the frustrations Workman had hoped they would. "Around the middle of the summer, we hit a little slump and things weren't working like we'd hoped," Swauger said. "But by the end of the summer, things were really working out, and we now have a good basis for future research."
The results of their many experiments are the results the research team had both wanted and expected. "So far, it's looking as though we'll be able to use far less catalyst for the reactions," Cocanougher said, "which means less waste, and the catalyst can be separated from the products after the reaction, so it's recyclable."
Still, Workman said, there is much work to be done before any concrete conclusions can be drawn.
Having spent the summer conducting this research, Swauger and Cocanougher feel confident that they are ready for the new challenges that await them. Having completed this summer's research at Centre, Cocanougher is now spending several weeks in Cincinnati, where he is assisting Dr. Brenda Wong, a pediatric neurologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, with two of her clinical studies, one on Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and the other on Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
"Participating in summer research at Centre was a great opportunity for me," Cocanougher said. "I feel confident that I'm well-prepared for future research opportunities, thanks to Dr. Workman and the rest of the Centre math and science faculty, and I'm definitely looking forward to my time in Cincinnati."
Swauger plans to put her new research knowledge to use in the fall, when she will be studying abroad in Mexico. While there, she plans volunteer in a medical clinic, something that several Centre students have done in the past.
"This summer has definitely given me the opportunity and ability to continue research in the future," she said. "I feel more prepared to talk intelligently about research and understand what goes into doing it. It's rare that students have the chance to do research in a setting such as Centre, which provides students with so much individual attention. I feel very lucky to have had this experience."
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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