A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
September 18, 2008 Volume 39 / Number 1


CSRI: The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry's Unique and Successful Undergraduate Research Program

CSRI Student Researchers

Research teams made up of 16 students, four professors, and the scientists from Advanced Light Technologies undertook leading-edge research during the Chemistry Summer Research Institute. The professors, representatives of ALT, and other members of the Chemistry and Biological Sciences departments meet for a weekly seminar.

The Chemistry Summer Research Institute came into being four years ago when organic chemist David Ball, who has included more than 50 students in his research during his tenure at CSU, Chico, suggested that he and his colleagues and their student researchers should create a formal structure for the informal discussions that took place each summer. Giving some structure to their discussion of projects would extend the learning for all of them, especially the students, far beyond their individual research accomplishments.

CSRI was born, with a weekly seminar program and a more structured way to seek funds for student researchers ($3,500 for 10 weeks of work), which includes research grants the professors themselves have received, incentive and start-up money coming from the college, and grants such as the fourth grant from Roche Palo Alto LLC of $10,000 that provides stipends for CSRI students. Two chemistry alums, Marshall Ginter (‘57) and Eugene Reid (‘33) have also been generous in their support by providing student research stipends over many years.

Each Friday morning during the 10-week institute, either a professor or a student presents original research or topics from the current literature.

On the day I visited, Professor Erik Wasinger, beginning his second year at CSU, Chico, presented an overview of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL) and a rationale for the research he and his students are carrying out, "Electronic and Geometric Structure Derivation From X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy: Why Bother?" Wasinger comes to Chico via the California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and Argonne National Laboratory.

Wasinger's work with students Tim Dunn and Chris Lyons demonstrates the kind of research opportunity available to undergraduates at Chico. SSRL, a division of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, is operated by Stanford University for the Department of Energy. SSRL is a National User Facility that provides synchrotron radiation, a name given to X-rays or light produced by electrons circulating in a storage ring at nearly the speed of light. These extremely bright X-rays can be used to investigate forms of matter ranging from objects of atomic and molecular size to human-made materials with unusual properties.

Researchers must apply for time on the "beam line." Wasinger's experience at SSRL and at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago prepared Wasinger not only to be an expert in the use of this research equipment, but a link to procuring time at SSRL because of the quality of his own research there. Because there are only a few such facilities in the United States, one in Canada, and approximately eight in the rest of the world (these are extremely highcost facilities), the opportunity for undergraduate research in this area is rare.

Professor with two Student Researchers

Wasinger's students synthesized compounds to use in their research when they traveled to SSRL the first week in August for time on the beam line. Dunn is synthesizing organometallic osmium complexes, and Lyons is synthesizing metallothiosalen complexes. They will analyze properties of these compounds that cannot be studied in any other way: Synchrotron radiation is element specific, unlike most techniques; it can measure covalency as opposed to just infer it; it can probe spectrosopically silent elements.

Wasinger has high praise for Dunn and Lyons and other students in the chemistry department. "Chris and Tim are as capable as the best students anywhere. They have a good work ethic and are interested in new material and interdisciplinary research"

The other professors and students are doing equally impressive work. Five students working with Brian Pierce, CEO, Advanced Light Technologies, a Chico-based research and development company that uses its multi-patented Applied Photo Mechanics technology, work to find a way to apply laser technology to specific cancer cells for treatment. Three students researched a separate project to develop a magnetic hammer drill. The students are Garrett Parker, Brandon Fragoso, and Kevin Parsons, Biology; Allen Mull and Justin Petrovic, Biochemistry; Preston Countryman, Physics; Pierce Hubbard, Mathematics; and Nishchal Rana, Electrical Engineering.

Students Nina McCulley and Nick Hernandez are working under Professor Ball to make biologically active compounds ranging from gallicynoic acids, compounds with potential use as therapeutic reagents for HIV, to analogs of indolactam V, used to probe enzyme activity.

Nicole Crouse and Erich Bowman are working with Professor Jinsong Zhang to synthesize neolignans, a natural product. The compounds they are attempting to synthesize have potential antibacterial and antiviral properties. Crouse and Bowman are collaborating on each phase of the process, which includes synthesizing the compound 1,4-benzodioxane, a scaffold of many biologically active products.

Minh Uyen Huynh is working with Professor Dan Edwards to study lyngbyatoxin, which is produced by a marine cyanobacteria found in waters off Hawaii that is responsible for causing swimmer’s itch. Edwards and Huynh are studying how the cyanobacterium assembles the unique chemical structure of lyngbyatoxin in order to develop better methods to make this type of compound.

"Although there are many great things about CSRI, including the dialogue, the camaraderie, and the shared research experience, the best part of the institute is the opportunities it affords the students," said Randy Miller, chair, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "Most of these students go on to make presentations at national meetings of the American Chemical Society and other professional organizations. It connects them to the real world of chemistry, and it enhances their credentials for getting into top graduate programs or jobs in the field."

—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publication