Jessica Greger ’11 will be a junior at William Smith this fall, but already has earned two grants for her synthetic organic chemistry research, has co-authored a research paper with Associate Professor of Chemistry Erin Pelkey that is pending publication, and is co-authoring a review paper on the field of 3-pyrrolin-2-ones, small molecules that display a wide range of biological activity, with Pelkey and Sarah Yoon-Miller ’09.
“What Jess accomplished is a big deal. As an undergraduate, she was able to get funding for her project from an external source, in this case, the Sigma Xi scientific research society,” says Pelkey, adding that the state of the economy has reduced available grants, making Greger’s accomplishment more remarkable.
The grant from Sigma Xi was for $1,000 and will be used to buy chemicals to continue her research, aimed at finding better methods for putting together the 3-pyrrolin-2-ones. Greger also earned a travel grant from the American Chemical Society-Division of Organic Chemistry, which enabled Greger and Pelkey to present their findings at the 41st National Organic Symposium, from June 7 through 11, in Boulder, Colo. A copy of the poster they presented in Colorado was requested by a number of pharmaceutical researchers in attendance.
The synthetic organic chemistry research project is part of a larger overall study by Pelkey to develop new methods for making carbon-to-carbon, carbon-to-oxygen, and carbon-to-nitrogen bonds. Synthetic organic chemistry is the science of putting together complex organic (carbon-containing) molecules from simpler starting materials. The molecules can then be adapted for use by other researchers.
“One motivating factor for working on these compounds is that they are found in a variety of pharmaceutical agents and drugs in development,” Pelkey explains, noting examples such as anti-cancer agents, anti-HIV agents and anti-diabetic agents.
Greger is a chemistry major and plans to pursue her Ph.D. She would like to work for a pharmaceutical company and develop drugs with her own research team. When she does, she may well find that she uses a method or molecule that she discovered in her undergraduate research to develop a life-altering or life-saving new medicine.
“Research allows us to be creative and come up with new breakthroughs. In my case, this entails creating new, better pharmaceuticals,” says Greger. “Without research, we can’t create new and better drugs, with fewer side effects, to keep people healthy. It’s really amazing to know that the work you are doing could help millions of people.”
Pelkey started his research at HWS in 2002, and has worked with more than 29 students; about one-third of whom have worked on this project specifically. However Greger has shown unusual success as an undergraduate researcher. She was only the second student Pelkey accepted into the summer research program immediately following the first-year at HWS – the first was Yoon-Miller, a Blackwell Scholar who is now at SUNY Upstate Medical College pursuing a medical degree.
“Both turned out to be stars, and they opened the door for more rising sophomores,” says Pelkey. Having so many years to work on a project takes the student’s research abilities to a whole new level by the time they graduate and pursue graduate school or careers. “Getting to work on a project for two to three years, you become an expert on it; you become much more than just a student doing reactions.”
Greger’s involvement with this project has come full circle. She first became interested in it when she visited HWS as a prospective student. While on campus, she attended a class with Pelkey and learned about some of the many research projects under way at the Colleges. Later, she sat down with Yoon-Miller ’08, who discussed the breadth of research in which she had been involved, including the beginning of the 3-pyrrolin-2-ones project. The opportunity to be part of such important and impacting research sealed her commitment to HWS. She spent her first summer with Pelkey being mentored by Yoon-Miller. Now, she is training rising seniors David Degan and Jake MacDonald to do synthetic chemistry research.
When she’s not in the lab, Greger is also very active on campus. She is the secretary of William Smith Congress, a lieutenant for HWS EMS and co-president of health professions club.
Pelkey and his student researchers have published four peer reviewed papers in the past seven years and are working on several manuscripts, including the one on which Greger is co-author. Many of the nearly 30 students who worked with Pelkey have gone on to either graduate school in chemistry, medicinal chemistry careers in the pharmaceutical industry, medical school or dental school.