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Because the chemistry faculty are actively involved in research, interested students have plenty of opportunities to do research; these opportunities range from summer internships as part of the John S. Rogers Summer Science Research Program to senior honors thesis projects. Many of these research projects have culminated in articles published in scientific journals.
Faculty research interests are quite diverse as highlighted by the descriptions below, so every student should be able to find a project of interest. In some cases, more details can be found on the web pages of the faculty member leading the research project.
Research in our group is focused on environmentally relevant electrochemical reactions; currently we are focusing on how clays affect the oxidation of iron metal. Both iron metal and reduced clays have separately been used to degrade contaminants but it has been found by others that often when the two are combined, the rate of contaminant degradation dramatically increases. Understanding how the clay and iron interact is ultimately important in improving the use of iron permeable reactive barriers in degrading groundwater contaminants. In our research, we coat iron electrodes with a clay suspension. We then use electrochemical techniques to determine how the presence of the clay affects the corrosion of the underlying iron metal.
Inorganic Materials Chemistry
Research in our group focuses on the study of nanoparticle surface functionalization and the incorporation of nanoparticles into metal oxide thin films for use in energy storage applications. The stability of a colloidal solution of nanoparticles is highly dependent on the nanoparticles’ surface treatment. We use dynamic light scattering, zeta potential, and transmission electron microscopy to measure nanoparticle stability in solution. Thin films are produced via electrodeposition and characterized via scanning electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction. Our recent work has focused on studying the electrochemical capacitance and oxygen-evolving ability of manganese oxide and cobalt oxide thin films, respectively.
Computational Physical Organic Chemistry
Our group studies complex and controversial mechanisms of organic chemical reactions by using high-level computational methods (e.g., CASSCF and CASPT2). We seek a fundamental understanding through close examination of transition state molecular orbitals. We primarily study, and differentiate between, pericyclic and pseudopericyclic reactions, the latter involving one or more orbital disconnections. For example, we have recently uncovered a novel pseudopericyclic transition state geometry, with a nearly planar six-membered ring, for the Cope-type rearrangement of cis-1-iminyl-2-ketenylcyclopropane (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2010, 132, 2196). More recently we have begun a study of reactions whose transition states exhibit a coarctate (meaning “constricted”) or pseudocoarctate orbital topology.
Biochemistry of RNA Enzymes
Aqueous Organometallic Chemistry
Our research examines metal complexes and nanoparticles that promote the catalytic hydrolysis of neurotoxins in aqueous media. In a prior NSF-supported work, we found the organometallic compound bis(cyclopentadienyl)molybdenum(IV) dichloride (Cp2 MoCl2) selectively hydrolyzed O,S-diethyl phenylphosphonothioate (DEPP) with selective P-S scission under mild aqueous conditions. The compound DEPP mimics several toxic phosphonothioates including the chemical warfare agent VX. P-S scission is the desirable degradation pathway as P-O scission yields a compound almost as toxic as the original phosphonothioate. This discovery, which led to a patent award in January 2011, is the first example of an organometallic compound that carries out this useful transformation. However, the thiophilic nature of the molybdocene compound meant the hydrolysis was only stoichiometric. In the current NSF-RUI supported project, we use nanoparticles and other molybdenum organometallic complexes to turn this stoichiometric transformation into a catalytic one. Along this process, we also seek to find the mechanism of how metal complexes hydrolyze sulfur-containing organophosphates.
Neurons communicate with one another by secreting chemical messengers at specialized junctions called synapses. We study the trafficking, synaptic localization and release of neuromodulatory proteins from dense-core granules (DCGs) in hippocampal neurons. Our studies rely on the use of RNA interference, cloning and expression of fluorescent hybrid proteins, and high-resolution fluorescence microscopy to discern the molecular mechanisms associated with the release of several key neuromodulatory proteins that are required for long-term memory formation.
The main focus of research in the Loening lab is the development of new methods for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and the application this technique to a variety of chemical and biological problems. Most recently, this work has focused on using NMR to study the structures and functions of spider venom peptides (many of which are neurotoxins). The long-term goal of this research is to identify compounds that can act as highly-specific painkillers or environmentally-friendly insecticides. Further information can be found on the lab website.