Learning in the Research Lab – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Learning in the Research Lab

This semester, Professor of Chemistry Erin Pelkey is providing students with crucial lab experience. Nate Truax ’17 and Maeve Holton ’15 are continuing research they began in the fall, and are joined by Fernando Banales Mejia ’17 whose work began at the beginning of the semester.

“Involving students in research is essential for their professional development,” says Pelkey. “As with anything, the best way to learn how to become a scientist is to do science. Independent studies opportunities give students the time and intellectual space to begin the process of thinking like scientists, designing experiments, interpreting results, drawing conclusions, and writing reports. I take great pleasure in witnessing the growth of undergraduate science students firsthand in my research lab.”

Under the direction of Pelkey, the students are working on a study titled, “The Lewis Acid Mediated Arylations of Tetramic Acids.” The aim of the project is to discover and optimize the “greener” and more cost-efficient methods for making compounds known as ‘arylpyrrolinones.’ The specific reactions only produce water as a byproduct, whereas “alternate synthetic methods to arylpyrrolinones usually involve precious metals such as palladium and harsh reagents such as triflates,” he explains.  

Pelkey’s study is being conducted in conjunction with research on anti-cancer agents being performed by members of the biology department. Aarylpyrrolinones potential as anti-cancer agents is begin explored by Professor of Biology Patricia Mowery and Carly Rolph ’15, who are testing the arylpyrrolinones and cytotoxicity assays in cancer cells.

For Banales Mejia, who originally planned to major in political science, the hands-on lab experience has been very beneficial. “I am still in the process of learning, but my goal by the end of the semester is to gain the skills to become an independent researcher by learning how to read articles to approach a product in a different manner, improve my interpretation skills of NMR, and conduct reactions on my own,” he says.

Banales Mejia credits much of his interest in chemistry to Pelkey. “Not only is Professor Pelkey a wonderful instructor, but he has an outgoing personality that motivates me to work hard.”

Holton, a chemistry major and a classical studies and philosophy double minor, has been working in the lab with Pelkey since the summer of 2012. “Without a doubt, research has been the single most formative experience of my college career,” she says. “Through it, I’ve learned invaluable skills in terms of analysis, problem solving and critical thinking, presented at a variety of conferences ranging from local undergraduate gatherings to the National Organic Symposium, and been published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry.”

In addition to being involved with research, Holton is a member of the William Smith club rugby team and plans to apply to Ph.D. programs in organic chemistry.

Truax, a chemistry major and undeclared minor, has always benefited from learning through hands-on experience. After taking an organic chemistry course, he wanted more time in the lab. “Hands-on experience, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to learn something,” says Truax. “Organic chemistry plays a large role in society today by creating new medicine and other things that we use every day.”

On campus, Traux is a member of Chorale, Cantori, HWS EMS and the Orange Key Society.