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Dr. Megan Matthews (‘11) Finds a Culture of Collaboration at Penn State

Dr. Megan Matthews (‘11) Finds a Culture of Collaboration at Penn State

When Dr. Megan Matthews began searching for graduate programs, she knew that she wanted to attend a top research institution that would offer her the opportunity to develop as a scientist.


Fortunately, Dr. Matthews—who earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry in 2011—found everything she was looking for at Penn State. She notes that she was particularly impressed by the University’s state-of-the-art facilities, “the new building with beautiful chemistry labs makes PSU Chemistry one of the nicest research facilities that I have seen and had the pleasure to work.” However, it was the enthusiasm of the chemistry community at Penn State that made the University stand out. “The faculty are excited to do science, and the administration does everything it can to enable their research programs,” she says, “There are no barriers or fears - diving into science with passionate researchers was both inspiring and motivating.”


After arriving at Penn State, Dr. Matthews conducted research with four different faculty members; she says that “the resources and individualized faculty support makes PSU a special learning environment.” The breakthrough moment in her graduate research came during her fourth year at Penn State. “I was watching the mass spectrometer acquire the key piece of data that nailed our hypothesis and cracked open the project that would become the major direction of the lab for many years to come,” she explains, “That day I learned that as grad students, we are only a single experiment away from making a big discovery and having an impact on a field.”


Although Penn State’s top-of-the-line research and academic programs ultimately convinced Dr. Matthews to come to the University, it was the people, the culture, and the positive working environment within the Department of Chemistry that made her graduate school experience special.


“Penn State gave me what I needed to succeed when, at the time, I felt like I was taking a big risk,” she explains. “The collaborative culture at PSU was exactly what I was looking for in my graduate experience,” she continues, “students learn together, work hard together, and, most importantly, having fun throughout our graduate careers in and outside of lab. The combination creates a team-based culture that opens endless opportunities...The department is spot on in terms of knowing how to create an inclusive culture that truly defines everyone as equals.”


After graduating from Penn State, Dr. Matthews joined the discovery proteomics program at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. While there, she worked with Dr. Ben Cravatt to discover new drug targets by capturing functionality on proteins that cannot be predicted from gene or protein sequence. Her work eventually resulted in a publication in Nature Chemistry.


Shortly afterwards, Dr. Matthews said goodbye to the beaches and boardwalks of California to return to Pennsylvania. She is now Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, and her group is studying chemical proteomics technologies to discover functional protein modifications and novel drug targets.


Dr. Matthews says that her time at Penn State gave her the skills and confidence to propel herself to success at Scripps and as a professor. “Penn State inspired me to think big, be bold and trust myself,” she explains, “The science and the people at Penn State taught me how to focus my creativity, how to ask pressing biological questions, and how to communicate compelling results across disciplines—the essential components of scientific research.”


She adds that several of the professors she worked with at Penn State are still actively involved in her career. She explains that their support has helped her overcome challenges she faced as a woman in a male-dominated field. “At Penn State,” Dr. Matthews explains, “mentorship is for life.”


“I would not be where I am today without the spectacular training and continued support I received from PSU,” she continues when asked what advice she would give to students considering Penn State’s graduate program. “There are many factors to consider when choosing a graduate program, but with Penn State you cannot go wrong.” She notes, “for me, I never doubted that I made the right decision to go to PSU.”


In her free time, Dr. Matthews enjoys traveling, cooking, and wine tasting with her husband, as well as online shoe shopping.


Maria Landschoot

Communications Coordinator

Department of Chemistry

 

Penn State University

 
Department of Chemistry Hosts MilliporeSigma Lectureship

Department of Chemistry Hosts MilliporeSigma Lectureship

The Department of Chemistry at Penn State thanks MilliporeSigma for its support of its eponymous lectureship for the third year in a row; the lectureship is part of the company’s ongoing efforts to “deepen scientific relationships” between industry and academics. The primary objective of the MilliporeSigma lectureship is to connect our scientists with the broader community of researchers in the hopes of forging more collaborative partnerships. This year, Dr. Tyrel McQueen, professor in the Department of Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, traveled to University Park to participate in the lectureship and present a seminar entitled “The Dawn of the Chemistry of Quantum Materials: Discovery, Synthesis, and Potential Applications.”

 

Beth Rosenberg, Manager of the Research Technology Specialist at MilliporeSigma, explains that the company supports the lectureship because of its strong belief in the importance of collaborative science. She notes that the company aims to “advance science and work toward solutions to the toughest scientific problems facing people today” through the lectureship.

 

Dr. McQueen’s research is addressing some of these very problems. His lab focuses on fundamental and applied research within quantum materials, research that is leading to the  discovery of new materials that will be the building blocks of the technology of the future. This field of study has the potential to make the production of everyday items cheaper and more efficient, while turning out products that are smaller, lighter, and more durable. Dr. McQueen notes that many of his group’s discoveries “will probably be used in ways that we can’t even imagine right now.”

 

Penn State faculty and students enjoyed attending the lectureship and speaking with Dr. McQueen about his work. Helping chemists make these important connections is part of MilliporeSigma’s goal of building productive scientific partnerships.

 

Dr. McQueen notes that he decided to participate in the lectureship because “it’s important to talk about the design and creation of new materials.” He explains, “If you look at the technological achievements people have unlocked in the past century – all of human history really, right down to the ability to create bronze and then iron – much of what we’ve achieved has been tied to the ability to create new materials with new properties...Our next age of technology will be the same – it will depend greatly on the creation of new materials with new properties, and a leading candidate is the wild world of quantum materials.”

 

The Department of Chemistry at Penn State thanks MilliporeSigma for their support and Dr. McQueen for his participation. The department looks forward to hosting future MilliporeSigma lectureships.

 

Maria Landschoot

Communications Coordinator

Department of Chemistry

Penn State University

 



Professor Ayusman Sen Selected as the 2019 Recipient of the Langmuir Lecture Award

Professor Ayusman Sen Selected as the 2019 Recipient of the Langmuir Lecture Award

Congratulations to Dr. Ayusman Sen, Professor of Chemistry at Penn State, who has been selected as the 2019 recipient of the Langmuir Lecture Award. This award recognizes outstanding contributions in the field of colloid, interfacial, and surface chemistry broadly defined.Dr. Sen will be recognized and present a plenary lecture on his research on catalytic nano/micromotors at the Fall 2019 American Chemical Society Meeting in San Diego.
O'Brien Group Finds Features that Shape Mechanical Force During Protein Synthesis

O'Brien Group Finds Features that Shape Mechanical Force During Protein Synthesis

Like any assembly line, the body’s protein-building process generates a mechanical force as it produces these important cellular building blocks. Now, the O'Brien group is one step closer to understanding that force. They also built a mathematical model to help guide scientists with future investigations into how the body creates proteins.

 

Professor Lauren Zarzar Receives ACS PRF Award

Professor Lauren Zarzar Receives ACS PRF Award

Congratulations to Dr. Lauren Zarzar, assistant professor of chemistry at Penn State, who was recently awarded a Doctoral New Investigator grant from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund.

 

The Petroleum Research Fund aims to support fundamental research in the petroleum field and to develop the next generation of engineers and scientists through support of advanced scientific education.

 

The award will fund Dr. Zarzar’s research into hydrate formation and agglomeration in Pickering emulsions. The grant will also support one PhD student, who will join Dr. Zarzar in designing experiments, setup, and analyzing results. Gas hydrates, or clathrate hydrates, are ice-like solids composed of host water molecule “cages” and small hydrophobic guest molecules such as methane or carbon dioxide. Dr. Zarzar hopes their work will lead to fundamental understanding of how hydrates behave in emulsions that may ultimately help to mitigate the formation of gas hydrate blockages in oil and gas pipelines, a problem that is becoming increasingly common in sub-sea oil production and transport.

 

Dr. Zarzar and her group aim to investigate whether particles that assemble at oil-water interfaces—Pickering stabilizers—can be effective in addressing the problem of hydrate plug formation. As Dr. Zarzar explains, “particles are well known to be highly effective emulsion stabilizers, but few studies have examined their use in reduction of hydrate production and prevention of hydrate agglomeration.”

 

Dr. Zarzar notes that this research will be an important contribution to efforts to transport oil and gas more efficiently, thus protecting the future of the energy resources that fuel the global economy. “The prevention of hydrate plugs in pipelines is a significant problem that leads to reduced efficiency in oil transportation and extensive safety hazards,” she adds, “development of additives that aid in stabilization of hydrate dispersions, or being able to predict the probability of a plug from the contents of the particulate and fluid matter in the pipeline, would be immensely useful in preventing such hydrate plugs from forming.”

                                                                                                                                           

Funds from the award will support this important work. Please join the Department of Chemistry in congratulating Dr. Zarzar as she pursues this exciting research.   


Maria Landschoot

Communications Coordinator

Department of Chemistry

Penn State University

 

             

 
Chem 112: Offering a Personalized Learning Experience

Chem 112: Offering a Personalized Learning Experience

Even though it serves thousands of students each year, Chemistry 112 offers a personalized class experience like no other. Chem 112 is Penn State’s second semester general chemistry course, serving a diverse group of students in many different majors. Chem 112 lays the groundwork for more advanced courses that students will take later in their college careers, which means that instructors are tasked with making the class applicable to students from many different backgrounds.


For instructor Dr. Lori Stepan, meeting this unique challenge meant rethinking the way she approached Chem 112. Although Chem 112 is a lecture course with hundreds of students in each section, Dr. Stepan’s teaching techniques give students a one-of-a-kind learning experience that they can personalize to meet their own needs.


Instead of simply listening to Dr. Stepan lecture about the topics they’re studying, students engage in active learning. Working with Learning Assistants (LAs), Teaching Assistants (TAs), and their classmates, students work through problem solving activities together in class. These activities are scaffolded, allowing student activities to move through the problems step-by-step. These group activities allow students to develop communication skills while also cultivating problem solving strategies that they can take with them as they progress to more advanced classes.


However, the in-class learning opportunities don’t stop there. Dr. Stepan conducts live chemistry demonstrations in almost every lecture, giving students a chance to see the information they’re learning in action. Students also have the chance to check their problem solving skills in real time with in-class clicker questions that put their knowledge to the test.


Outside of class, students have another important resource: an electronic textbook. The textbook was developed by Dr. Stepan and other faculty members and is customized to Penn State’s method of teaching chemistry. The book, which was designed to help students learn the material in greater depth, reinforces the problem solving method that students use in class. It’s full of unique resources that students won’t find elsewhere, like interactive practice problems that link back to the text and interactive molecules. Although the book is designed to be used in Chem 110 and Chem 112, students have access to it for four years after they purchase it, so they can use it as a reference in other classes.


Dr. Stepan is planning to take the electronic resources to the next level with an online assessment tool that she’s currently developing with other faculty members. The tool will allow students to take smart-quizzes to assess their knowledge. The quizzes are designed to increase in difficulty based on how many questions the student answers correctly or incorrectly. The quiz only moves students up to the next level of difficulty after they’ve successfully mastered the level below it. The assessment tool will help students prepare for tests and will even offer personalized feedback that shows students the topics they need to focus on.


For students who need extra help, Dr. Stepan organizes even more learning opportunities. Students looking for additional resources can attend optional discussions and help sessions that are led by LAs. Students can even attend free tutoring sessions through the Department of Chemistry. LAs also attend the tutoring sessions and help to answer student questions.

 

Dr. Stepan works hard to give students the tools they need to achieve success in science on their own. She sees herself as a “coach,” providing resources and information, but ultimately encouraging students to learn the material on their own. She hopes that Chem 112 instills a “growth mindset” in students. “I want the students to be confident in chemistry,” she explains when asked what she wants students to take away from the class, “as an instructor, it’s my job to encourage them to think that, if they put in the effort, they can do whatever they try to do in chemistry. I want to give them the confidence and enthusiasm to think that they can learn whatever they want to learn.”

Zarzar Group Reveals an Unrecognized Mechanism for Generating Structural Iridescent Color

Zarzar Group Reveals an Unrecognized Mechanism for Generating Structural Iridescent Color

In a paper appearing on Feb. 28 on the cover of the journal Nature, Dr. Lauren Zarzar and her group describe how a surface covered in a fine mist of transparent droplets and lit with a single white light lamp can produce bright, iridescent colors if each tiny droplet is precisely the same size. This newly explained form of structural color could aid in the development of brilliantly-colored cosmetics, color-changing paints, or adaptive camouflage. Read the full paper here!

Department of Chemistry Announces Four New Assistant Heads for Undergraduate Education

 

The Department of Chemistry is excited to announce the creation of four new assistant head positions for undergraduate education. The assistant heads will be working with Dr. Dan Sykes, Associate Head and Director of Analytical Laboratory Instruction, to promote and develop an undergraduate program that will be better equipped to educate and support the chemists of the future. The four new assistant heads will be Dr. Joe Houck (Assistant Head for UG Curriculum), Dr. Kate Masters (Assistant Head for Student Engagement), Dr. Aaron Garner (Assistant Head for Ethics), and Dr. Sheryl Dykstra (Assistant Head for Outreach).

 

HouckAs assistant head for undergraduate curriculum, Dr. Houck will lead the department's efforts to pursue curricular coherence and work to identify and develop new courses. He was drawn to the position because he believes it will help “our students become the best chemists that they can be.” He plans to achieve this goal by expanding options within the curriculum by working to identify ways to link knowledge between courses and exploring “big ideas” in chemistry that can be carried through the curriculum. He also plans to work to expand options within the curriculum by working with other departments to offer their 400-level courses as chemistry elective credits.

 

MastersDr. Masters will work to manage and direct student engagement opportunities for undergraduates, which include research, internships, coops, scholarships/awards, student portfolios, and career/grad school workshops. In particular, she hopes to expand research opportunities for first-year students. She explains, “In addition to the freshmen research experience, I plan to create new courses and programs that allow for unique and sustainable student engagements on different levels, including advising, outreach, and interdisciplinary projects. It's an exciting time!” Dr. Masters also plans to work with Dr. Sykes to overhaul undergraduate advising to make it more student-centered. “One important task of this new position is to better support our students through more thoughtful, personal advising and encouraging students to engage in a variety of opportunities,” she notes,  “we need to be better about educating our students on these opportunities.”

 

GarnerDr. Garner has been named assistant head for ethics. He says he first became interested in the position because of a desire to improve the quality of the undergraduate program. “We do a lot of things really well as a program, but over the past couple of years we have identified a number of specific areas where we believe we can improve,” he says, “the new assistant head positions are a way for us to make progress by delegating an individual to lead each of these initiatives.” In his new role, Dr. Garner will lead the department's efforts to pursue the coherent integration of ethics into the chemistry curriculum. He explains, “we want our courses to include a significant and meaningful focus on ethics that improves our students’ ethical judgment and promotes awareness of the ethical consequences that arise from the practice of chemistry.” He says that his goal is to “promote curricular change that will make ethics a central feature of our undergraduate courses.” He adds, “It's important that we work together to ensure consistency and quality in how we approach ethics in our courses so as to send a coherent message to our students.”

 

DykstraAs assistant head for outreach, Dr. Dykstra will work to promote the chemistry department to raise awareness of the chemistry program among future students. She will manage the program’s social media presence and work to develop content to promote the program. She first became interested in the position after becoming involved with the departmental Website Committee. Dr. Dykstra is eager to reinvigorate the department’s promotional efforts. “I anticipate working very hard to use our web presence and social media to advertise our program better, with the goal of increasing the number of chemistry majors by recruiting higher quality and more diverse students,” she explains, “I anticipate working closely with the college’s recruitment events, travelling to conferences, and interfacing with high schools to promote our major.”

 

Join the Department of Chemistry in congratulating Dr. Houck, Dr. Masters, Dr. Garner, and Dr. Dykstra on their new positions.

 

 

Maria Landschoot

Communications Coordinator

Department of Chemistry

Penn State University




Boal Group Teams up with Harvard to Study How Bacteria Produces a Compound Used to Treat Cancer

Boal Group Teams up with Harvard to Study How Bacteria Produces a Compound Used to Treat Cancer

 

Dr. Amie Boal, assistant professor of chemistry at Penn State, and members of her research group (BMMB Ph.D. graduate Andrew Mitchell and chemistry postdoctoral scholar Roman Rohac) recently teamed up with Dr. Emily Balskus of Harvard and her Ph.D. student, Tai Ng, to explore how a bacterium that lives in soil produces an important anticancer compound, streptozotocin. Streptozotocin contains an N-nitrosamine (-N-N=O) functional group that is responsible for its anticancer activity, and the collaborative team was particularly interested in studying formation of the nitrogen-nitrogen (N-N) bond in the drug. Although streptozotocin has been important in the treatment of cancer for many years, the Balskus group is the first to illustrate how the bacterium actually produces this important compound.Their discovery was recently published as a paper in Nature.

 

N-N bonds in nitrosamine compounds can be generated non-enzymatically via reaction between primary amines and nitrosating agents. In streptozotocin biosynthesis, the Balskus group found that a dedicated iron- and oxygen-dependent enzyme, SznF, was responsible for N-nitrosamine formation. SznF catalyzes an oxidative rearrangement of an arginine (Arg) amino acid precursor to generate the N-nitrosamine product. Dr. Boal says this finding is particularly exciting because it reveals a new, largely unprecedented way to perform this sort of reaction. It is now clear that the bacteria evolved a specific process to produce nitrosamine compounds that is very different from any other known routes.

 

The Boal group solved an x-ray crystal structure of SznF, showing that the protein contains two different active sites. Each domain contains its own non-heme-iron cofactor and performs a different step in conversion of the amino acid substrate to the N-nitrosamine product. First, two different N-hydroxylations are performed by a multinuclear iron center located in the middle of the protein. This chemistry is known in other systems but the structure of this part of SznF is unusual. The last step of the SznF reaction is an oxidative rearrangement to form the N-nitrosamine. This transformation is performed in a different domain with a mononuclear iron cofactor. The structures solved by the Boal group show that a hydroxylated-Arg intermediate coordinates this iron center, and this feature of the active site is likely critical for choreographing the complicated N-N bond formation chemistry.

 

Dr. Boal says that this work opens the door to new questions about how the N-N=O unit is made. “To a chemist,” she notes, “there’s a lot of interesting questions about how these reactions work because there’s such a big structural change in the molecule.” The discovery of SznF also suggests that scientists may have underestimated how compounds like streptozotocin might be used in nature.

 

The Balskus and Boal groups searched bacterial genomes that have been sequenced to identify other proteins similar to SznF. They have discovered that approximately 400 of these proteins exist, and the Balskus group noted that some are found in human pathogens such as Legionella pneumophila, the cause of Legionnaires disease. “Emily and Tai have proposed that human pathogens make these compounds as part of causing disease, an interesting and novel idea,” Dr. Boal notes. Further study of these enzymes will help scientists to understand how they function in nature and the impact they might have on human health.

 

Going forward, the collaborators will continue to study how the enzyme functions at the molecular level and to work towards a better understanding of the steps in the production of compounds like streptozotocin in pathogens.

 

You can read more about their discovery in Nature.

 

Student Project Makes Chemistry Learning More Accessible

When a student with a hearing impairment signed up for Chemistry 110B, Professor Philip Bevilacqua was faced with a challenge: how to make the many YouTube videos that are a vital component of the course accessible to the student. The videos are an important learning tool, allowing students to deepen and apply their knowledge outside of class time. Dr. Bevilacqua took the problem to his Learning Assistants (LAs) for the course, asking them to help come up with a solution to ensure that all students in the course were able to appreciate and utilize the YouTube videos. “It was a challenge to provide closed captioning to over 50 different videos,” said Dr. Bevilacqua.


Inspired to make sure that all students in the class had a positive learning experience,  LA Isabel Friedenberg—who is a sophomore majoring in biology with a minor in Arabic—spearheaded the closed captioning team, which consisted of fellow LAs Ellie Alberti, Emily Kim, Madelynn Holderman, and Friedenberg herself.


Friedenberg worked with Dr. Bevilacqua to learn how to closed caption the videos.  Once they had learned the process, the closed captioning team spent hours each week painstakingly correcting a rough Google version of the transcript.  They added necessary chemical and mathematical symbols and formulas, and helped oversee the efforts of. Afterward, each video was posted to YouTube for all the 110B students to utilize.  “It was a unique opportunity to directly impact the students of CHEM 110B,” Alberti says when asked why she decided to join the team, “watching videos online has always been an extremely useful learning tool for me, so I was excited to be able to enhance that experience for these students!”


The team say that they saw firsthand the difference that YouTube could make to student learning. “I think that this closed captioning project was useful for the students because it allowed students to have a written out explanation of what the video had iterated,” Kim explains, “This allows students to learn better since they are using both their auditory and visual senses.”


Their hard work paid off. Thanks to the closed captioning team, every student in the class was able to benefit from all the resources available to them and take away something important from the class. “I liked the idea that students who were unable to hear, could still get extra help watching the videos,”  Holderman explained, “I felt as if I, along with the other closed captioners, were making a difference, by giving every student an opportunity to learn the same as everybody else.” Friedenberg also had a positive take away from the experience. “This endeavor was also very rewarding to me on a personal level,” she said, “My hope is that these videos, though seemingly small, helped these students move forward with their education with as few obstacles as possible.”


Accessibility projects like this are making a big difference when it comes to fulfilling the Eberly College of Science’s goal to promote an inclusive environment for all members of the ECOS community and to advance the representation of diverse communities within STEM fields. For her part, Friedenberg hopes that her efforts inspire students to pursue careers in the science. “Hopefully, I’m helping students realize that a disability shouldn't be the reason that they do not pursue their dream profession or degree,” she explains.  Dr. Bevilacqua agrees and adds, “Many other students used the closed captioning and reported that it enhanced their learning as well.”


Although Friedenberg won’t be involved with Chemistry 110B this semester, she’s hoping to be back as an LA in the fall. “I would love to do more with this type of project,” she added when asked about her future plans regarding the class, “I’m always on the lookout for new and exciting opportunities.”  Take a look at this example on bromine reactivity to see the team’s work in action.  


The closed captioning team provided the following brief primer on closed captioning:            


  1. Wait for YouTube to make a first attempt at cc: This happens quickly, within a few hours typically.


  1. From Video Manager, find your video in the RH box. Click on the “V” next to “Edit” next to your video and choose “Subtitles/CC”


  1. Choose “English”, “Set Language”


  1. Click on “English (Automatic)” under “Published”.  If re-editing, choose “English” below “English (Automatic)”.


  1. On the new screen click on “Edit” in the upper RH corner.


  1. Run video and edit as needed. Choose the blue “Save changes” near the top right of the screen.


  1. When done select CC so it will autoload with closed captionings. Of course, the user can click their own CC to turn it off!


Maria Landschoot

Communications Coordinator

Department of Chemistry

Penn State University

 
Eric Nacsa Joins Faculty of Department of Chemistry

Eric Nacsa Joins Faculty of Department of Chemistry

The Penn State Department of Chemistry is excited to announce that Dr. Eric Nacsa will be joining the department faculty starting June 1, 2019 as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry.


Dr. Nacsa earned a B.S. from Harvey Mudd College and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. He comes to Penn State from Princeton University, where he is conducting postdoctoral research with Professor David MacMillan.


Dr. Philip Bevilacqua, head of the Department of Chemistry, commented “Eric has done incredible work during in his PhD and postdoctoral studies in the area of synthetic organic chemistry.  He has designed potent organic bases and catalysts, as well as reagents for enantioselective alkylation reactions. Eric has creative ideas for new directions in synthetic chemistry that use novel and direct approaches for organic transformations.  Eric is an outstanding hire and we are very excited to have him joining our faculty!”


Dr. Nacsa is looking forward to making the transition to Penn State. He notes that, although he was impressed by the University’s top-tier research environment, he was particularly drawn to the atmosphere of collaboration within the department. “The highly collaborative nature of the Eberly College of Science provides a unique opportunity to make a notable scientific impact,” he says, “this environment will make it easier to work with other scientists to help me address my own technical challenges, and for me to lend my expertise to a broader range of problems.” Dr. Nacsa was also impressed by the department’s dedication to educating the next generation of scientists. “I really value PSU's commitment to teaching,” he says, “meeting with the chemistry teaching faculty was the most memorable part of my interview because I was amazed at how much support they receive, especially in the context of a large public research university. I am excited to be a part of this important and well-executed mission to provide quality, public higher education.”


Dr. Nacsa’s current research focuses on developing processes to make organic synthesis more efficient by creating techniques to manipulate the individual parts of molecules in new, productive ways. His work has the potential to help scientists discover new, life-saving drugs by giving researchers the tools to prepare the thousands of chemical compounds that are typically evaluated on the way to developing a new medicine  more quickly. “The faster each of these compounds can be prepared, the better we can make a contribution to human health,” he explains.


He plans to take this research even further at Penn State, noting, “I really want to leverage the chemical tools that I plan on developing to do more than make small organic molecules, which has been the traditional scope of organic synthesis. I think that this work could address problems in materials chemistry, renewable energy, and chemical biology.” He adds, “I believe that Penn State will provide an especially promising environment to achieve this goal.” Dr. Nacsa is looking forward to establishing a vibrant research group which will work toward this goal and address pressing problems in biochemistry.  “It is Eric’s commitments to scholarship and to our chemistry community that are especially important for our department”, added Dr. Bevilacqua.


Dr. Nacsa and his wife are looking forward to moving to State College with their dog, Winston. “We spent most of our 20s in NYC and the LA area, and are looking to transition away from bigger metro areas to start a family,” Dr. Nacsa explains, “We both grew up in smaller college towns and will be very happy to be able to have more space to play with our dog and our future children while still being a short distance from downtown and work.”


Join the Department of Chemistry in welcoming Dr. Nacsa to Penn State!


Maria Landschoot

Communications Coordinator

Department of Chemistry

Penn State University

 
Chem 110: Challenging The Lecture Hall Experience

Chem 110: Challenging The Lecture Hall Experience

 

What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘lecture hall’? For many students, taking a class with hundreds of other students may seem intimidating or uninspiring. However, Dr. Mary Jo Bojan, one of the instructors for Chem 110, is aiming to change all of that.

 

Chem 110 is Penn State’s first-semester general chemistry course, designed to prepare students for the more advanced courses they’ll have to take during their college career. Even though the class is vitally important, many students struggle to learn in large classes like Chem 110. Dr. Bojan’s answer to this problem has been to create an active-learning environment that gives students a chance to engage with the material they’re studying.

 

Instead of just delivering lectures, Dr. Bojan works hard to give each student the chance to participate in the lesson. “I want students to do as much active learning as possible,” she says while explaining how she structures the class. Each lecture contains active-learning opportunities that designed to give students the chance to put their knowledge into action. These opportunities include group problem-solving activities and live, in-class chemical demonstrations, such as fuel cells and combusting balloons.

 

During lecture, students are also encouraged to sit in their teaching assistant’s (TA) section, giving them the chance to talk through problems and build a close-knit learning community, even in a crowded lecture hall. Dr. Bojan says this is an important part of the class. “Big lectures are impersonal,” she explains, “it’s less intimidating when they sit with their TAs, and it gives them a smaller setting for collaborative learning.” Learning assistants—undergraduate students who have taken Chem 110 before and have volunteered to help other students succeed—are also on hand during lectures to give students a helping hand and answer questions.

 

Chances for active learning don’t end in lecture, however. In addition to the three weekly lectures for the entire class, each student is also assigned to a weekly recitation led by a teaching assistant. Recitations give students the chance to develop a deeper understanding of the topics they’re studying. Each group contains about thirty students, giving them the chance to participate actively in class work, to practice problem-solving techniques, and to ask questions about the material they’re studying in a smaller environment.

 

Outside of class, students continue the active-learning with their electronic textbook, a unique resource that was developed by Dr. Bojan and other faculty members at Penn State. The book is customized to Penn State’s method of teaching chemistry and reinforces the problem solving methods that students learn in class. It’s full of tools that students won’t find elsewhere, like interactive practice problems that link back to the text and interactive molecules. Although the book is designed to be used in Chem 110 and Chem 112, students have access to it for four years after they purchase it, so they can use it as a reference in other classes.

 

For students who don’t have a strong background in chemistry or math, there are even more opportunities to engage with the material covered in lectures. Chemistry 108 is a one-credit course that dovetails with Chem 110 to give students at risk of failure extra tools and support. Students in Chem 108 attend one extra recitation a week, where they receive extra help from a TA and have a chance to ask questions. These students also have access to extra resources, including problems that are written in scaffolded steps to help students arrive at the right answer and mastery-based modules that make no assumptions about prior knowledge. “Chem 108 provides an alternate mode of learning,” Dr. Bojan explains, “it provides additional structure, and students like that...there are a lot of As in Chem 108.”

 

Thanks to Dr. Bojan’s methods, students take away much more than scientific knowledge when they leave Chem 110. Aside from a strong academic foundation, Dr. Bojan hopes that her students develop other skills that will help them excel in upper-level science classes. “I want them to take away problem solving skills, communication skills, and the ability to reason and make connections,” she says.

 

Maria Gregor Finds Research Opportunities at University Park

Maria Gregor Finds Research Opportunities at University Park

When Maria Gregor transferred to Penn State from her local community college, she was immediately struck by the wide variety of resources available to chemistry students at University Park. “Penn State has instruments that other schools don’t,” she notes, “I appreciate that we have access to things like the NMR Spec and the GPC.” However, the resources available at Penn State go beyond access to state-of-the-art instruments. Gregor— who is a native of Butler, PA— came to Penn State in search of opportunities not offered at smaller schools, including the chance to do cutting-edge research on campus.


“Find a lab that interests you, and then reach out,” Gregor advises while describing how she got involved with research at Penn State, “be proactive.” After enrolling in classes, one of the first things Gregor did was start looking for research opportunities. After reading about faculty labs and contacting several professors about opportunities in their groups, Gregor found herself working in Dr. Elizabeth Elacqua’s lab. She has been conducting research with Dr. Elacqua and her group for over a year, and is currently working to synthesize conjugated polymers that could function as semi-conductive material.


Because Gregor’s polymers are better at conducting electrons, they’re ideal for use in organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), which are used to create digital displays in devices like television screens, computer monitors, and smartphones. OLEDs emit visible light, meaning that tech manufacturers don’t have to build backlights into their products and can make their devices thinner and lighter. Gregor explains that many industries are moving away from inorganic products in favor of emerging organic materials, such as the polymers she helped to create.


Her work was highlighted in a recently submitted paper.


Completing the synthesis of the polymers was a proud moment for Gregor. “It’s was exciting when we finally got our polymers,” she says, “after working on them for so many months, it was great to see the finished product. Doing research is very rewarding,” she continues, “it’s exciting when your science works.”


However, Gregor is gaining more from her research experience than the completed polymers. “Research helps you develop as a scientist,” she explains, “it helps you become more confident in your science and in yourself. You develop better communication skills and a deeper understanding of the science.”


After graduating, Gregor plans to pursue a career in industry and is considering returning to school for a master’s degree after working for a few years. She’s found a supportive group of faculty, staff, and students within the Department of Chemistry who are helping her work toward that goal.


“Everyone here tries to make sure you know what you need to know for life outside of academia,” she explains, “everyone is very warm within the department. I’ve never run into a person who is unwilling to help when you have a question. Everyone is willing to sit down and talk things through with you.”


Gregor’s research experience in Dr. Elacqua’s lab has given her an opportunity to prepare for her career with hands-on learning, an opportunity she encourages other students to take advantage of. “It’s a great way to start your scientific journey,” Gregor says when asked what advice she would give to undergrads who are interested in doing research, “research isn’t just for chemistry students. We have a chemical engineering major and a psych major in our lab. There are so many opportunities here; don’t be afraid to ask professors about their research or to ask for advice. Don’t be afraid to get to know the people around you.”

 

In her free time, Gregor enjoys reading fantasy novels, playing the violin, and watching videos.

Current Student Feature: Ashley Saunders

Current Student Feature: Ashley Saunders

Every chemistry major at Penn State has a different story about how they discovered their passion for science.

 

For third-year chemistry major Ashley Saunders, the light-bulb moment came in middle school when she attended a law and CSI camp. Saunders thought she wanted to be a lawyer when she started, but she left the camp with newfound enthusiasm for forensic science. “I thought the law stuff was a bit boring,” she admits, “instead, I got really interested in the scientific investigation process.”

 

However, it was her tenth-grade chemistry teacher who helped her to realize that the chemistry behind forensics was what interested her the most. Saunders loved the teacher’s enthusiasm and had a great time in his class. Later in high school, Saunders even had a chance to design her own experiments, which gave her the foundation for the work she’s doing now. “It was kind of like an office hours relationship, which is rare in high school,” she explains, “he really helped me dig into chemistry.”

 

So, when it came time to think about college, Saunders knew that she wanted to keep studying chemistry. She researched programs around the country and eventually decided that Penn State was the school for her.

 

Although academics were important to her, it wasn’t just the top-notch chemistry and forensic programs that drew Saunders to the university. She was impressed by the campus and the resources that were available to her, like the Millennium Scholar Program—a scholarship program designed to prepare a diverse cohort of students to be leaders in STEM disciplines.

 

The Penn State culture also made an impression on her. “It’s an encouraging environment,” she says, “it really fosters creativity.”

 

After starting classes, Saunders decided not to pursue her interest in forensic science and focus on chemistry instead. She has created an academic home within the Department of Chemistry, conducting research, presenting a poster at the Eberly College of Science Research Symposium, getting involved with student organizations, and even gaining experience as a tutor.

 

Saunders says that enthusiasm is what makes the Chemistry Program at Penn State special. “The faculty love their jobs,” she explains, “they really want to help you learn.”

 

The wide variety of research being conducted within the department also appealed to her. “No matter what you’re interested in,” she explains, “there’s probably a faculty member doing research in that area.”

 

Saunders found her own niche in Dr. Lauren Zarzar’s lab, where she’s currently conducting research. According to Saunders, working with Dr. Zarzar and her group has been one of her favorite experiences at Penn State. Saunders is currently researching properties of oil-oil emulsions with Dr. Zarzar and even published a paper with her research group. “It’s really great to get into lab and think out experiments and solve problems,” she says, “creating something new is exciting.”

 

In her free time, Saunders loves to indulge her passion for music. She plays the piano, ukulele, and flute, and she enjoys singing on campus with Essence of Joy, an African and African American traditions choir.

 

Although she’s not sure what her future career may bring, Saunders is planning to pursue a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Analytical Chemistry after graduation.

 

“There are lots of resources here,” she says when asked what advice she has for future Penn-Staters, “take advantage of what PSU has to offer.”

 

Olivia Kuzio (‘17) Discovers the Art in Chemistry

Olivia Kuzio (‘17) Discovers the Art in Chemistry

Olivia Kuzio—who earned her BS in chemistry in 2017—didn’t start her undergraduate degree at Penn State. “I chose to transfer to Penn State halfway through my freshman year at another university, where I was having a tough time feeling like I was just a number,” she explains. As it turned out, coming to Penn State was one of the best decisions she ever made.

 

During her first year as an undergraduate, Kuzio took an elective that changed her way of looking at the world—literally. “I took an art history elective and fell in love with the subject,” Kuzio explains, “because I knew I still wanted to continue pursuing my degree in chemistry, I was determined to find a way to study the intersection of science and the arts.”

 

Fortunately, Kuzio found that the faculty of the Department of Chemistry at Penn State were ready and willing to support her goal. “The faculty are accessible and happy to support diverse interests,” says Kuzio, “I found, especially, that their willingness to build collaborations across the university and beyond made virtually any endeavor, whether academic or research related, attainable and exciting.”

 

Thanks to her knowledgeable advisors, Kuzio was able to get involved in research projects across the University, including in the Department of Food Science, and the Preservation, Conservation, and Digitization Department of the University libraries. Kuzio says that these projects helped her map out her post-graduation path. “It was through these experiences that I was able to...apply what I was learning in the classroom to problems that captured my interest, and to guide the development of my passion and define my direction for graduate studies,” she says.

 

Today, Kuzio is combining her passions for art and chemistry at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she is pursuing a PhD in Color Science and an MS in Chemistry. Color science is a multidisciplinary field that investigates how color is created and perceived; it’s important in the manufacture of items like paints, plastics, textiles and cameras. It’s also applicable to conservation science, which attracted Kuzio’s interest. Her color research deals with scientific imaging of cultural heritage materials, like photographs and paintings.

 

Kuzio is currently a graduate research assistant under the supervision of Dr. Roy Berns in the Studio for Scientific Imaging and Archiving Cultural Heritage at RIT. She says that her work with the lab “has quite literally offered me a new lens through which to approach the study of cultural heritage objects.” She is currently working on a project that focuses on total appearance imaging of paintings for the capture of color, spectral, texture, and shape information.

 

She put her research into action last summer with an internship at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, where she studied the fading kinetics of the dyes in chromogenic photographs. Kuzio helped develop a method for correlating the color change observed under museum gallery lighting versus under an accelerated fading technique called “microfadeometry.” “Photographic prints in general are light sensitive materials,” she explains, “so it's important to quantify and understand the limits of light exposure that they can withstand before noticeable fading and other color changes can occur.”

 

Kuzio says that her work exemplifies why she became interested in combining art and science to begin with. “I have realized… [why] I was drawn to conservation science in the first place,” she explains, “the beauty of the objects and the utility of what we can learn from them.”

 

Kuzio’s time at Penn State formed the academic foundation for the work she’s doing now, but it wasn’t the only thing she took away from her time at Penn State. Kuzio developed friendships and relationships that will last a lifetime. “There was an all-in-this-together attitude in our classes and labs,” she says of her fellow chemistry majors, “It was really special to attend the department commencement celebration with the forty or so peers with whom I graduated, because it was especially evident then that we hadn’t just shared our academics—we’d grown together as colleagues and friends.”

 

In her free time, Kuzio enjoys running— a habit she picked up while attending Penn State. Kuzio says that running helps to relieve stress, and she tries to train for a few half marathons each year.

Bevilacqua Group and Keating Group Explore Early Earth Chemistry

Bevilacqua Group and Keating Group Explore Early Earth Chemistry

The Bevilacqua group, in collaboration with the Keating group, recently published a paper exploring the origin of life on Earth in what is referred to as the prebiotic “RNA world." The researchers examined how Membraneless assemblies of positively- and negatively-charged molecules can bring together RNA molecules in dense liquid droplets, allowing the RNAs to participate in fundamental chemical reactions. Read more here!

Ayusman Sen Develops New Method to Control Fluid Flow and Organize Particles

Sen StoryDistinguished Professor of Chemistry Ayusman Sen recently developed a new, simple, and inexpensive method that uses ultraviolet light to control particle motion and assembly within liquids could improve drug delivery, chemical sensors, and fluid pumps. Read the full story here!

Department Members Recognized for Commitment to Diversity

Department Members Recognized for Commitment to Diversity

Four members of the Department of Chemistry were recently recognized for their commitment to creating an environment of mutual respect and diversity within the Eberly College of Science. Dr. Sheryl Dykstra, Dr. Raymond Schaak, Dr. Miriam Freedman, and Ms. Connie Smith were honored for their work at the Dean's Climate and Diversity Award ceremony. The award was created in 2009 to highlight members of the ECoS community who contribute to a climate of respect and inclusivity within the college. Each of the four honorees received a certificate in recognition of their hard work, which is part of the Chemistry Department’s ongoing efforts to build a welcoming environment for all faculty, staff, and students.  

 

Dr. Dykstra, who is an associate teaching professor, was nominated for the award for going above and beyond to create a positive and comfortable environment for students from all backgrounds. Although she holds students accountable for their academic progress within their courses, she is well known for the understanding and empathy she shows toward students who are facing unique challenges and for showing sensitivity to those who require special accommodations. As her nominator notes, “Her office is also inviting—always open to chat with staff, faculty or students… I really like that she displays the ‘Be Kind, Be Inclusive’ sticker in her office window...Something so small and simple (like this sticker) can speak volumes to those who are feel singled out, alone and even hurting.” 

Dykstra

Dr. Schaak, who is the DuPont Professor of Materials Chemistry, was nominated for his efforts in cultivating a diverse pool of applicants for faculty positions within the department. As the head of the faculty search committee, Dr. Schaak ensures that candidates are treated with respect and courtesy during interviews and visits; as his nominator wrote, “Ray has paved the way for positive climate and diversity in searches.” His hard work is not going unnoticed either. Some candidates have even written to thank him for making the recruitment process inclusive and welcoming.

Schaak

Dr. Freedman was recognized for her work as the associate department head for climate and diversity. She also heads the departmental committee on climate and diversity, works with the colloquium committee to enhance gender and racial diversity, and is the department’s STRIDE representative. Dr. Freedman advocates tirelessly for greater diversity within the department by educating faculty members about implicit bias and working with the faculty search committee to vet applications to assure diversity.  Her nominator noted “Miriam has established a positive atmosphere for climate inclusivity with graduate students and postdocs within the department, as well as the faculty. We are very fortunate to have her leadership.”

Freedman

Ms. Smith was recognized for her role in advocating for a positive climate for staff within the department. As lead research staff assistant, Ms. Smith oversees the three other research staff assistants, and is diligent in bringing climate issues that impact staff to the attention of the department head. As her nominator notes, “Connie is a leader in making clear climate issues with her research staff assistants. She also makes suggestions how we as faculty can better interact with and thus help retain our staff.” Ms. Smith’s efforts have helped to create an environment that is comfortable and welcoming for both faculty and staff.

Smith

Every day, faculty and staff in the department strive to create an inclusive atmosphere that promotes cooperation and tolerance. The efforts of dedicated department members like Dr. Dykstra, Dr. Schaak, Dr. Freedman, and Ms. Smith go a long way to ensuring that everyone can find an academic home within the Department of Chemistry.

 


You can learn more about the department’s commitment to diversity here.


Maria Landschoot

Communications Coordinator

Department of Chemistry

Penn State University

 
Ramesh Giri Joins Faculty of Department of Chemistry

Ramesh Giri Joins Faculty of Department of Chemistry

The Penn State Department of Chemistry is excited to announce that Professor Ramesh Giri will be joining the department faculty starting July 1, 2019 as the Weinreb Early Career Professor.

 

Dr. Giri earned a B.S. and an M.S. from Tribhuvan University in Nepal, an M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge, and a Ph.D. from The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He comes to Penn State from the University of New Mexico (UNM), where he is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

 

Dr. Philip Bevilacqua, head of the Department of Chemistry, said “We are thrilled to have Ramesh Giri join our faculty.  He is a rising star in the field of synthetic organic chemistry.  Ramesh has pioneered novel directions in cross-coupling methodologies using copper and nickel.  He has a keen intellect and ability to identify unsolved problems in the field.”

 

The Giri research group is particularly interested in identifying and solving chemical problems that have broad impacts in the areas of energy, materials, and health. Their work has the potential to revolutionize the way scientists produce complex molecules by making the production of such molecules cheaper and faster, and more efficient. Over the last six years at UNM, the Giri research group has been working to develop more sustainable processes for creating these molecules. The group has developed innovative strategies that make it possible for scientists to form more than one bond at a time when manufacturing the molecules while using sustainable and cost-effective first row transition metals (Fe, Co, Ni, and Cu).

 

Dr. Giri’s work has the potential to impact the production of many different materials, including pharmaceutical drugs. In the long term, his research could help lower the cost of these drugs to consumers by making production quicker and more cost-effective for pharmaceutical companies. So far, the group’s work has yielded many exciting results, including a new process that allows for synthetic modifications of two commercial drugs.

 

Dr. Giri is looking forward to continuing this groundbreaking research at Penn State. “Our long-term goal is to change the way people make complex molecules,” Dr. Giri said of his group’s future work at Penn State.

 

While at UNM, Dr. Giri also started an outreach program through his lab to encourage underrepresented high school students to pursue careers in STEM fields. Inspired by Dr. Giri’s own experiences of growing up in a rural area of Nepal, the program was designed to motivate students to go to college and begin preparing them for careers in the sciences. Dr. Giri noted that many of the student’s parents never even completed high school, making it all the more important to show them what a career in the sciences could look like. Dr. Giri is eager to start a similar program through his lab at Penn State.

 

Dr. Giri is looking forward to working with the other faculty members within the department and joining the Penn State community. “The collaborative environment is one of the things that drove me to come here,” Dr. Giri said when asked what attracted him to Penn State. “Ramesh has the right combination of excellence in research and natural leadership to help Penn State Chemistry continue its tradition of excellence in Organic Chemistry”, added Dr. Bevilacqua.

 

Please join the Department of Chemistry in welcoming Dr. Giri to Penn State.

 

 

Maria Landschoot

Communications Coordinator

Department of Chemistry

Penn State University

Lauren Zarzar awarded an Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers grant.

Lauren Zarzar awarded an Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers grant.

Lauren Zarzar, assistant professor of chemistry, has been awarded a five-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Army to conduct research related to reconfigurable fluids. Read full story here.

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