It’s time for me to get back in the lab

If you are living in this current time and not viewing this as some research project 100 years in the future, you probably expect getting back to work in the lab will be tricky. For me, this summer, it’s a little bit of yes and no.

I am closing in on the end of the pre-tenure phase of my career at Davidson. My tenure dossier will be due in the Fall of 2021, and I’ll want to wrap up as much work as possible in time for the evaluation. My plan for the next 15 months has been to reduce the number of student researchers to give myself time to focus on finishing what many previous students have started. During Fall 2019, I committed to two students with one winning a prestigious Davidson summer research grant. However, when everything ground to a halt in March, all our plans were thrown into the trash bin!

These two students were still very much interested in trying to make it work, and seeing that, I couldn’t deny them. But Davidson isn’t allowing on-campus research, so it’s going to be remote. We’ve agreed to try out X-ray crystallography and computational research as much as possible to give them skills while still keeping them connected to the projects we have in the group. That’s the tricky part.

The not-tricky part, I hope, is that I’m going to be working in my lab alone this summer. As I had planned, I want to finish up work that was started before, but now I’ll be focused on things that can be incorporated into the work that the remote students are doing. Here’s a picture of me on my first day back in lab (today!).

Person standing in a laboratory with safety goggles and a Disney-themed face mask for COVID-19 safety.

So wish us luck on this crazy summer. We’ll see where it takes us!

Present and Past of Davidson Chemistry Team Up!

Matt Whited is an inorganic chemistry professor at Carleton College, and he is also a Davidson College grad from 2004. I’ll be honest that we hadn’t crossed paths until I was looking through the for ideas to incorporate into my Organometallics course last Spring. I happened upon his migratory insertion laboratory lesson, which is a three-experiment series covering the synthesis of several organometallic moly complexes.

In those materials and among his papers, I noticed he was still expanding the set of phosphines that would induce migratory insertion. Having just read some papers about the PTA ligand, I was curious about whether it might work similarly. We exchanged a few emails, and we were off to the races.

The students did a bunch of work, I mailed out some crystals over the following summer, and we received some very high quality data that is presented in the paper (written by Matt).

Check out the paper here.

Two chemical structures displayed in both a Lewis dot structure style as well as a three-dimensional representation based on X-ray crystallography data

New paper out!

I have a feeling this is going to be a big year for our group for publishing. Several projects have started coalescing into their final stories, and I will have time away from teaching next academic year to push them the last mile.

And the one that might break the dam is this new paper out from Christopher Bejger’s group at UNC Charlotte. Christopher and I have been bouncing ideas off of one another, scrounging for funding, and looking for a way to collaborate. This is his idea entirely, but I had a hand in the data manipulation as well as a few other small aspects. I’m thankful I was able to help!

His table of contents graphic game is top tier!

a molecular structure with water splashing around it indicating it is water-soluble, while also noting that the molecule is redox-active

Another semester for the record books

Most crystal structures in a single semester (4)!

Most Chemistry 115 students in my classes (58)!

Highest pizza-to-person ratio during the end-of-semester lunch (0.6)!

Most changes of gloves on the glovebox (2)!

Most 4th year reviews before tenure (1, hope I don’t have to repeat 4th year over again)!

Most discussions about Disney shows (impossible to know)!

Most presentations by the group (3 oral, 7 posters)!

It’s been a great semester, once again. I’m grateful for all the work the students put in over this time, both in the research group and in my classes. Group members traveled all over the country to talk about our work: San Diego, Albuquerque, and Asheville. And we still have more travel planned for next semester and next year. I’m excited for what is in store for the next semester and going into the summer. With any luck, we’ll have some great results, great grades, and a lot of fun along the way!

people taking a selfie enjoying pizza at a restaurant

NC Photochem 2019

I’m pretty spoiled by being so close to a bunch of really great schools in North Carolina. It’s not often that you can put on a conference on a small focused topic for just folks in your state and have it be a success. And yet, we have NC Photochem!

I received an invitation from Michael Walter at UNC Charlotte to give a talk about battery science (yes, I know it’s not photochemistry, but we all speak the same language!). And then I got the chance to meet (or meet up with) some great folks across the state like Alex Miller (Chapel Hill), Mike Hambourger (App State), Jillian Dempsey (Chapel Hill), and Jay Hanna (Winthrop).

Ellen and Nick joined me for the day in Boone. It was the first time I think they had seen me give a talk in front of an audience on our research. I nailed it! It just felt comfortable and easy, and I credit the atmosphere of the conference for that.

Can’t wait for next year!

Albuquerque, Here I Come!

Artwork installation in Albuquerque consisting of large letters spelling out Albuquerque

Before coming to Davidson, I was a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories working out of the Livermore, California site. However, Albuquerque is Sandia’s home. Incidentally, the lab is named for the Sandia Mountains, which are named for the rosy color they have during sunset. Just like a watermelon!

This year, I traveled to ABQ for the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE) Peer Review. It’s a yearly pilgrimage for those interested in issues of grid-scale energy storage. With my research funding from OE, this means I, too, make the pilgrimage and get to show off the good work we’ve been doing over the past year.

The cover of the program for the Office of Electricity Peer Review meeting for 2019.

Awesome Doublet of Quartets

The other day, our newest group member was taking an NMR of a reaction mixture that contained triethylammonium chloride. What I found so interesting was that the methylene signal was very well-resolved, showing a clear doublet of quartets. This could only happen if the N-H was also coupling to the methylene.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrum of the methylene of triethylammonium chloride showing a quartet of doublets

The J-coupling to the N-H is 4.85 Hz, and the J-coupling to the methyl is 7.37 Hz. Maybe I should be calling it a quartet of doublets?! Great teaching moments ahead!

I’ve attached the data from our Bruker instrument as a ZIP file. This is a reaction mixture, so be warned, it is impure. 1,2-dimethoxyethane is the other major species in the spectrum.

Spring ACS National Meeting

Person standing next to a large sign that says "True Science"

For those of you not in the know, the American Chemical Society hosts two meetings are year, which gathers together chemists from all across the spectrum to talk about everything and anything related to chemistry. I’ve seen talks about perovskite-based solar cells, CUREs in an undergraduate curriculum, celebrations of lifetime achievements, networking and job hunting, posters and talks given by people from all across the planet… the list goes on and on.

This year, I wanted to bring along Claudia, Nick, Ellen to experience the spectacle. Nick and Claudia both presented their research in the session called “Undergraduate Research at the Frontiers of Inorganic Chemistry.” Ellen gave a poster in the same associated poster session. But what I was most impressed by was their ability to take it all in. Nick was running hard back and forth between hotels as he tried to see as many potential future PIs as he could. Ellen and Claudia spent time at the graduate school information round table discussions as well as the “Exploring Global Opportunities” session. They are all a little bit more prepared for what awaits them after Davidson, and I’m so happy we did it together.

group of runners getting ready to head out on a morning jog together

For some like myself, the meetings are also a terrific time to catch up with old friends who have been scattered across the country. One of my first undergraduate researchers, Nicole Torquato, is now at UC San Diego working with Cliff Kubiak. She sent me a text saying “where are you?” and in two minutes, she pops through the door of a research talk to sit right next to me. Stuart Smith and Miriam Bowring were fellow Bergman students who are now at ExxonMobil and Reed College, respectively, and we just all happened to bump into each other. My students really bonded with Miriam’s student Lexi (sorry if I’m spelling that wrong). I got to say hi to Ian Tonks face-to-face for the first time and see some of the research that my buddy Neil is doing with his students at Penn.

It’s possible I’ll be heading to the next meeting in Philadelphia, but the jet lag is killing me right now. I’m not going to think about it right now!

Story of Summer 2019 Told in Pictures

Here’s just a little of what is going on this summer:

First, we said congratulations to Jennie and Nick as they graduated from Davidson, Class of 2019! Jennie is heading to DC for a 2-year position at the NIH. Nick is heading to graduate school after a gap year doing research. I’m so proud!

Nick Kennedy ('19) and Jennie Goodell ('19) standing with Mitch on the lawn after graduation.
Nick Kennedy (’19) and Jennie Goodell (’19) standing with Mitch on the lawn after graduation.

That was Sunday. The following Monday, Ellen and Corey started their summer working in the lab. They both were awarded with Davidson Research Initiative fellowships to fund their research this summer. Ellen is continuing our work on redox flow battery electrolytes while Corey is helping to finish our first story on redox mediators for Lithium-Air batteries.

Two weeks later, we had a second wave. Nick came back for a few weeks to help train the next generation. Alexa is getting her first experience of synthetic chemistry, and Tashroom is trying to see where chemistry could take him as he prepares to head to college next year.

Left to Right: Corey, Tashroom, Ellen, Nick, and Alexa standing in the laboratory for a group photo.
Left to Right: Corey, Tashroom, Ellen, Nick, and Alexa

Corey showed up this past week like he was some kind of Food Santa. He brought some Caribbean food with him, and it was amazing. And then he told us about something called roasted coconut water, and my life will never be the same again.

Ellen and Nick eating Caribbean food brought to us by Corey.
Ellen and Nick eating Caribbean food brought to us by Corey.

Alexa is running her first chemical reaction of her career! Time for some new redox mediators!

Alexa, Corey, and Nick working on redox mediators for batteries while standing at the glovebox.
Alexa, Corey, and Nick working on redox mediators for batteries while standing at the glovebox.

We just finished week 4 of the summer. As the research advisor, nothing is more satisfying than seeing your group develop its own culture and personality. The lab now has a group Spotify station (I’ve even been given access to add songs!), there’s a BBQ next weekend, and we’re planning videos to teach future members how to do all the techniques we’re learned so far this summer.

Research students are posing with big smiles in the lab.
Ellen and Alexa think it’s pretty fun to wait for the antechamber to cycle in their stuff.

Corey and Alexa met up with Dr. Dave Blauch on Friday to see if mass spec. could tell us whether we made our aluminum and boron complexes… good news coming!

Dr. Dave Blauch is examining results from a mass spectrometry analysis to see if Corey and Alexa have made their aluminum and boron complexes.
Dr. Dave Blauch is looking for any trace of Alexa and Corey’s aluminum and boron complexes. The boron cation is there!

Being a synthetic chemistry group, we use all manner of techniques to make and purify our compounds. Below you’ll see vapor diffusion recrystallizations, a cannula transfer under an inert atmosphere, and a silica gel column.

Nobody had better say we don’t know how to have fun!

Students sitting in lab at their desks in the morning

I would say this summer has been one for the record books… in a bad way. On a weekly basis, there seems to have been some issue with supplies or instruments or nitrogen or … well, I don’t want to imagine what else could go wrong! Here are some pictures of me fixing the NMR’s autosampler.

Another bummer was the lack of regular nitrogen deliveries. I was so happy to see the gauge on our latest nitrogen tank say it was overfull!

As I was walking back from lunch, I noticed a group of children visiting our building. I asked if they wanted to check out a science lab, and of course, they said yes. I was so happy to show them what we were doing and to encourage them to be scientists just like us!

Early on in the summer, I asked the group if they were interested in making videos for future students to help learn lab techniques. They were more than excited, and we started brainstorming all the possibilities. Not sure that we’ll get to all of them, but we’ve already filmed 5 or 6, and Alexa has been working on the video editing to bring them all together. Check the Lab Instructional Videos page for them!

A whiteboard after a brainstorming session that includes all sorts of ideas for lab instructional videos.

Tashroom loves his camera gear, and he brought in one of his nice ones for a few science photo shoots. Check out these pictures!

And so we end another great summer!