Chemistry Research

Harvey Mudd chemistry faculty believe that research of project work on a significant chemical problem is a particularly valuable educational experience. Senior research (Chem 151-152) is the capstone experience of the chemistry degree. Students participate in research with faculty, some starting in their first year; all chemistry majors pursue research and write a senior thesis. About 15 to 25 students work on research projects in the department during the summer, and many papers co-authored by our students and faculty have been published.

Financial support for research comes from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Research Corporation, Merck/AAAS, Barbara Stokes Dewey Foundation, The Mellon Foundation, and The Beckman Foundation.

Summer Research 2023

All Harvey Mudd College undergraduates are invited to participate in the Summer Research program of 2023. Applications are especially encouraged from chemistry and joint chemistry/biology majors and underclassmen strongly considering a major in either discipline. Our summer program runs for 10 weeks (tentatively May 22–July 28) under the direction of Professor David Vosburg. Students will be conducting research, learning about the chemistry profession, and honing their presentation skills. Please direct any questions to: chemistry@hmc.edu.

Research descriptions are updated as received.

Professor Brucks – Polymer Chemistry and Chemical Biology

Controlling polymer degradability through stereochemistry

Many plastics are used for only a few minutes before being discarded to sit in landfills for decades. Creative solutions to recycle spent materials are urgently needed. We are developing new strategies to degrade plastics by leveraging novel elements of material design. Student researchers on this project will gain experience in polymer synthesis and characterization, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, size-exclusion chromatography (SEC), and ultrasonication.

Identification of selective prebiotics for commensal bacteria

The human body is composed of trillions of microbes that are key regulators of our health. This dynamic and diverse population comprises both beneficial commensal organisms and harmful opportunistic pathogens. We are developing a new approach to carefully manage this balance through the identification and design of prebiotics that selectively favors the growth of beneficial bacteria over pathogens. Student researchers on this project will gain experience with BSL-1 bacterial culture, and techniques from both chemical biology and microbiology.

Professor Hawkins – Atmospheric Chemistry

Brown Carbon Aerosol Formation by Photooxidation of Phenolic Compounds in Nanodroplets

Students will work as part of a collaborative team doing atmospheric chemistry research.

Ambient measurement of air pollution chemical, physical, and optical properties

Pending delivery of instrumentation and timing of infrastructure changes in my lab, there may also be an opportunity for students to be involved in calibration and testing of air quality instrumentation in preparation for long-term monitoring. Techniques include aerosol mass spectrometry, UV/visible spectroscopy, particle sizing, and use of low-cost sensors. Students interested in knowing more should reach out directly to Prof. Hawkins at lhawkins@g.hmc.edu.

Professor Healy – Hybrid Materials Chemistry

Hybrid Materials for Next-generation Energy Storage

To tackle climate change, we need cleaner, more efficient ways to store and use energy. Many of the proposed “next generation” energy devices (things like fuel cells or advanced battery technologies) require conductive solid components known as Solid State Electrolytes or SSEs. Unfortunately, the current options for SSE materials all have drawbacks. Inorganic materials tend to be highlyconductive, but difficult to work with. Organic materials (usually polymers) tend to be easy to process, but are relatively poor conductors.

At the Hybrid Materials Chemistry (HMC) lab, we’re interested in generating “hybrid” materials with both organic and inorganic components, which will hopefully combine the best of both organic and inorganic materials. We’re particularly interested in phase changes between crystalline, liquid and amorphous states of these hybrid materials, and how these phase changes influence the material properties. Hopefully, we’ll collaborate with some international colleagues who’ll do some additional characterization on your materials.

If you’re interested, please feel free to contact Prof. Healy for more information at chealy@g.hmc.edu.

Professor Hernandez-Castillo – Broadband Microwave Spectroscopy

Anesthetics are used every day in thousands of hospitals to induce reversible loss of consciousness, yet the mechanism is still a pharmacological puzzle. Understanding the mechanism of action requires the identification of their binding sites and modes of binding. We take a physical chemical approach to this mystery and focus on understanding the molecular interaction between anesthetics and key molecular components of the target binding sites. In order to characterize these interactions, we use our newly constructed broadband microwave spectrometer which allows us to record high-resolution rotational spectra. These spectra are exquisitely sensitive to the positions and orientations of the two molecules in the complexes and can unambiguously distinguish between the different binding arrangements.

Students researchers on this project will gain expertise in rotational spectroscopy, analysis of rotational spectra, electronic structure calculations, and quantum mechanics. They will also use experimental tools that grew out of other fields to solve current chemical problems, therefore gaining experience in how to use state-of-the-art technology in physical chemistry.

For additional information, email Prof. Hernandez-Castillo at ahernandezcastillo@g.hmc.edu.

Professor Van Heuvelen – Development of Bio-Inspired, Environmentally Friendly Catalysts

Developing Bio-Inspired Catalysts

Metalloenzymes found in biological systems catalyze a remarkable range of reactions with impressive efficiency and selectivity, and these reactions occur under benign conditions using earth-abundant materials. The Van Heuvelen lab draws inspiration from nature to develop new, environmentally friendly catalysts for important reactions.

We are currently studying the dechlorination of carcinogenic pollutants perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene. Metalloenzymes containing cobalt or nickel have been shown to remediate these pollutants. We synthesize small molecular mimics of metalloenzyme active sites and evaluate their reactivity. Insights into the fundamental chemistry that governs these reactions will be used to improve our catalyst design. We also study our compounds using computational methods.

Students interested in this work are encouraged to contact Prof. Van Heuvelen at vanheuvelen@g.hmc.edu to talk about opportunities in the lab this summer.

Opportunities for Students

Computational Chemistry: Calculate geometric and electronic structure of nickel and cobalt compounds and investigate possible reaction pathways.

Professor Vosburg – Green Organic Synthesis

We are developing eco-friendly reactions to rapidly prepare complex molecules (many of which have never been synthesized) with potential medical and optical applications. We aim to prepare these compounds in 1-3 steps with minimal waste, and selected products will be submitted to collaborators for antibiotic screening and/or tested for fluorescent properties. We are also starting a new project developing a new, green acylation method in collaboration with an industrial partner. Student researchers will gain experience performing reactions, purifying products, and analyzing compounds by thin-layer chromatography, mass spectrometry, and IR and NMR spectroscopy.

For additional information, email Prof. Vosburg at vosburg@g.hmc.edu.