NSF Chemistry Research Major Success – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

NSF Chemistry Research Major Success

Over the past three years, Professor of Chemistry Walter Bowyer and more than a dozen HWS students have pursued an extensive chemistry research project that investigates a chemical reaction known as indium mediated allylation.

The reaction, Bowyer says, deals with carbon-carbon bonds, which are essential in the production of manmade chemicals used for pharmaceuticals and plastics. It offers environmental advantages over the chemical alternatives, he says.

“Although the reaction is now being widely used, it is relatively poorly understood,” Bowyer says. “Our studies are designed to understand the mechanism and the steps involved when certain molecules that are put into the flask turn into the molecules that are being made: that is, as reactants turn into products.”

Funded by a $200,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the project has given students the opportunity to join Bowyer on co-authoring articles, presenting at national conferences and the chance to gain invaluable experience in the lab. Conducted as part of the NSF Research in Undergraduate Institutions program, the project has provided equipment and supplies, as well as supporting summer stipends for students.

The grant itself was issued due to the success of prior scientific studies, and this work is a continuation and elaboration of efforts completed through an earlier grant.

Bowyer says that the current project sought to make the industrial process, which can create reactions very harmful to the environment, more “green.” Bowyer says that as researchers, they are trying to gain an understanding at the molecular level and hopefully reduce hazardous waste.

The research is an exploration into “green” chemistry, something that Bowyer has been studying for the past 18 years. In addition to project’s scientific implications, the three-year grant helped to train undergraduates in advanced research – a level of laboratory work usually found at advanced institutes.

The students who were or are involved in the project are: Kathryn Bezbatchenko ’15, Katherine Delaney ’14, Salvador Forte ’11, Alexa Hill ’14, Katrina Kiesow ’14, Rachel Langenbacher ’12, Colleen Lukas ’11, Megan Musa ’15, Gabriella Mylod ’14, Troy Robinson ’15, Tessa Sullivan ’14 and Yuhan Xun ’13.

“Having students work with me helps them get started with research early in their careers as scientists,” remarks Bowyer, who strives to get students involved in research after their first year. “It also gets young students excited about science; it gets them involved early in their decision making process. It’s amazing to see what students can achieve in just a few years.”

The participating students have been involved in nearly every aspect of the project. During the project, the students used microscopy and computer imaging to measure rates of reactions happening on metal surfaces. They would then do the calculations and analyses necessary to interpret the images. 

Bezbatchenko, who is one of the students currently involved in the project, says that getting extra time in the labs during the summer really helped to boost her overall knowledge base and experience.

“I gained a lot of confidence over the summer,” Bezbatchenko says. “Not only did it help me with the chemistry and biology labs, but also helped me to ask better questions in class.”

Over the course of the project, 14 students were co-authors of research papers, including several who were involved before the grant was awarded. The research project also resulted in three published scholarly articles, with a fourth still in the works. All of the students also had the chance to make a presentation at a national meeting or conference. The published articles are:

  • “Heterogeneous rate constants for indium mediated allylations: cinnamyl chloride in ethanol/water mixtures; “The Journal of Physical Chemistry; co-authored by Hill, Delaney, Sullivan, Mylod, Kiesow, and Bowyer.
  • “Measurement of heterogeneous reaction rates: three strategies for controlling mass transport and their application to indium mediated allylations;” The Journal of Physical Chemistry; co-authored Isabel Olson ’09, Wendi Bacon ’12, Yessica Baez Sosa ’09, Delaney, Forte, Michael Guglielmo ’07, Hill, Kiesow, Rachel E. Langenbacher ’12, Xun, Ryan Young ’11, and Bowyer.
  • “Mechanism of indium-mediated allylation: a review of the evidence for the structure of organoindium intermediates,” published in Tetrahedron; co-authored by Bowyer, Professor of Organice Chemistry at University of California – Santa Cruz, Bakthan Singaram, Anne Sessler ’09.

Bowyer says that following graduation, many of the participating student researchers have gone on to follow a variety of paths, including graduate school, medical school, nursing, dental school, industry professions, and wine-making.

As he prepares for graduation, Robinson says that participating in the project has helped to advance his overall academic experience and provide an excellent foundation of skills.

“By conducting research over the summer, I was really able to see the kind of efforts that go into this kind of work,” Robinson says. “This has been a very important experience for me at the Colleges.”