Undergraduate research leads to new discoveries in chemistry for students, professors

Seventeen students collaborated with Professor of Chemistry Joe Scanlon and Associate Professor of Chemistry Patrick Willoughby on ground-breaking research that resulted in a published article this summer.

The article was published in Journal of Organic Chemistry and addresses the discovery of a new chemical reaction, the aryne-Abramov reaction. It also details how Scanlon, Willoughby and the 17 student researchers/authors used this process to prepare numerous molecules that had not previously existed; supercomputer calculations to understand how the reaction proceeds; and the first report of how solvents can be used to change the products formed in a reaction with benzyne intermediates, which is fundamentally significant, Willoughby says.

“The publication actually includes numerous discoveries. The first one was made by Amber Haugen ’18 in July 2017 when she and I were exploring new reactions of benzyne intermediates. One of the most recent discoveries was made when Brianna Bembenek ’22, Joe Scanlon and I were reviewing the theoretical data.”

All of the students involved are: Brianna M. Bembenek ’22 of Campbellsport, Wisconsin; Maya M. S. Petersen ’20 of Emerald, Wisconsin; Julia A. Lilly ’20 of Bloomington, Indiana; Amber L. Haugen ’18 of St. Cloud, Minnesota; Naomi J. Jiter ’19 of Kenosha, Wisconsin; Andrew J. Johnson ’20 of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Ethan E. Ripp ’21 of Black Earth, Wisconsin; Shelby A. Winchell ’18 of Janesville, Wisconsin; Alisha N. Harvat ’21 of Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Caitlin McNulty ’21 of Neenah, Wisconsin; Sierra A. Thein ’22 of Oostburg, Wisconsin; Abbigail M. Grieger ’22 of Fargo, North Dakota; Brandon J. Lyle ’23 of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin; Gabriella L. Mraz ’20 of Wind Lake, Wisconsin; Abigail M. Stitgen ’22 of Lodi, Wisconsin; Sam Foss ’20 of Third Lake, Illinois; and Merranda L. Schmid ’18 of Ripon, Wisconsin, now an adjunct instructor of chemistry at Ripon.

“This was a major project that required over three years to complete, so there was ample opportunity for student contributions,” Willoughby says. Funding was made possible by the American Chemical Society, National Science Foundation and Ripon College’s Oyster and Knop funds.

Student involvement in research projects benefits both the work that professors do and the education of the students involved, Willoughby says. “All research projects are designed with the intention that students will conduct the studies. The phrase ‘many hands make light work’ describes only a part of the benefits for having a large group of students involved. Students were more than helpers — they were collaborators, offering numerous insights to advance the projects.”

He says that research is an extension of the classroom, and the high-impact benefits of undergraduate research are some of the most valuable for aspiring scientists. “Undergraduate research allows the participating students to perform laboratory procedures far more advanced than things we do in a typical teaching lab,” Willoughby says. “Furthermore, after they conduct the experiment, they get to study their new compounds using all of the analytical instruments. On the theoretical side, students were executing computations using supercomputers to gain fundamental insight into the chemical events happening inside the test tubes. Not only were student researchers handling the reagents, using the instrumentation and executing the computations, but students were designing experiments, making adjustments to protocols, and recording important details. Undergraduate research is a great place to really get involved as a scientist.”


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