Hands embracing a Mobius strip molecule.
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HANDS ON CHEMISTRY

Applied by design

By Alicia Bessette

"Put your hands on it."

That's the teaching philosophy of Professor of Chemistry Michelle Francl, and it is a sentiment her department heartily champions. Whether sampling pond water, building lasers, making pigments or modeling phenomena on computers, chemistry majors find many opportunities to apply the skills they learn in the classroom to real-life tasks-getting their hands dirty in the process.

Assistant Professor and physical chemist Ed Wovchko has students construct the instruments they use in experiments. "Students who work with me do lots of building," Wovchko says. "They design apparatuses for experiments, and that ultimately allows them to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying science. Their projects enhance experimental skills and hands-on training with mechanical things."

Wovchko himself designed a new laboratory in the chemistry wing of Marion Edwards Park Science Center. (The chemistry wing, dedicated in 1993, was designed by Frank Mallory, W. Alton Jones Professor of Chemistry.) Wovchko's new lab will function as both a research and a teaching facility, and he plans to equip it with sophisticated instruments for experiments in physical chemistry.

As a Marshall Fellow, chemistry major Alexis Webb '02 hopes to take full advantage of the new lab during the spring semester. The Marshall Fellows Program, supported by the Ford Foundation, encourages undergraduate seniors to pursue teaching and research careers in higher education. Webb will adapt a physical chemistry lab under the guidance of Wovchko and Krynn Lukacs, Senior Laboratory Lecturer, leading freshman in building solar cells using organic dyes and familiarizing them with concepts such as current and voltage.

"I think that interesting, hands-on types of projects are more engaging to students," she says. "The great thing about physical chemistry is all the different kinds of apparatus, from lasers to large vacuum manifolds. Providing a learning opportunity that allows students to become familiar with information that they will use later is one of my teaching goals." (See the profile of Webb.)

Lukacs conducts a "paints and pigments" lab in which freshmen make pigments and use them in electrochemical etching. The lab was originally the vision of Anne Braun '00. As a Marshall Fellow her senior year, Braun wanted to marry her love of art and chemistry; Lukacs and then-Lecturer in Fine Arts Emma Varley (now at Muhlenberg College) helped her to do so.

"Many pigments used in art are inorganic in nature," explains Lukacs, "coming originally from rocks, then ground up and mixed into pastes with waxes and oils." In the lab, students generate the pigments of iron oxide and Prussian blue-chosen because they are safe and inexpensive to synthesize-grinding them into paint base just as an artist would. Then, they electrochemically etch original designs and patterns into copper plates, creating prints on the press in Arnecliffe studio.

"The electrochemical etching technique is a real-life example, something that non-chemists use," says Lukacs. "It's solid chemistry that ties in to what students learn in lecture. But it's extending what they're learning as well, and they get to see how chemistry is used in a context that is perhaps not that familiar to them. It makes it very real to students, and that's an important goal: to get them to see that chemistry is everywhere, even in art. And it's also a lot of fun. There we were in front of this huge contraption, pulling on the printing press with paint all over our clothes!" (Anne Braun, now a Watson Fellow, is studying remote tourism and its impacts on land management in Nepal, Chile, Antarctica, South Africa and Bolivia.)

Lukacs has received a Mellon TriCollege grant to incorporate the College's new drainage pond into a series of labs. She hopes that within a year or two, students will be studying pond water chemistry firsthand during a long-term project lab.

Computers
Computers also allow students to get their hands on chemistry-particularly physical chemistry, which has increasingly broad applications. (Biology major Alex Smith '01 landed a job as a crime scene investigator for the coroner of Pittsburgh thanks to her background in physical chemistry.)

Michelle Francl's physical chemistry classroom is equipped with computers for each student. "It's a help for students who are struggling and for students who are heading out to brave new horizons," she says, "because I can accommodate everybody with hands-on work. The classroom lets me move pretty seamlessly between regular lectures, lectures with computer illustrations, and the students' work on computers. With computers, you get a much better qualitative feel for what's happening. Students are able to explain phenomena; they get a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sense that they don't get when they're hitting buttons on calculators. The more active you can be with the material, the better."

Computers also illustrate complex theoretical concepts nearly impossible to teach with pencil and paper alone. For example, chaotic systems such as oscillating chemical reactions-which show patterns similar to epidemics and predator-prey relationships-are being broached with computers in Francl's new course, Mathematical Modeling of Chemical Phenomena, this fall.

Maryellen Nerz-Stormes, Senior Laboratory Lecturer, exploits the Internet as an effective teaching tool; her website for organic chemistry students, has gained campus-wide admiration. "It is always a work in progress," she says, "and I will probably make some big changes to it soon. The biggest part is the 'web book,' which has all my learning tools, writings on the history of organic chemistry and some good sites for learning organic chemistry I found on the Web. They are in chronological order with respect to how I teach the lecture and the lab."

Personalities
Putting a human face on chemistry is a goal of department Chair and Associate Professor, Susan White. She assigns seniors to read the autobiography or a biography of a chemist and write a critical paper in response.

"When we teach," White says, "chemistry is very content-driven. We don't take enough time during class to talk about historical experiments, what people were thinking, what available technologies were at the time, what led them to think that you could get nuclear fusion out of water molecules, or that AIDS comes from mosquitoes and not viruses. I want the students to see that scientists have personalities, and that personalities do play a role in what happens. Another issue of great interest to students is who becomes a scientist. What was it like for the first women, Jews or African-Americans?"

White anticipates that the Center for Science in Society, through its programs, will demonstrate chemistry's-and chemists'-historical significance, as well as provide students with opportunities to improve their speaking and writing skills. "This year we are eager to have student participation in the Center and plan to invite student presentations to the Tuesday Brown Bag discussions I'm planning with Paul Grobstein [Eleanor A. Bliss Professor of Biology and director of the Center]," says White.

The Center also will serve the broadening, diverse interests of chemistry majors. "While there are always students who are geared toward the academic life, there are many more than in the past who want to broaden and enrich their experiences," Krynn Lukacs says. "Students have multiple goals now. Just as many students end up going to graduate school and medical school as always, but there are allied subjects such as public health and environmental toxicology that students have been quite successful in. There are also surprises: A few years ago we had a senior chemistry major go on to teach dance; another went into business. Students have so many interests now, and they're driven in many areas. It's not just academics anymore." For more information on the Center, see serendip.brynmawr.edu/local/scisoc/.

A love of teaching is a characteristic that faculty, students and alumnae/i of the chemistry department consistently praise. Says Maryellen Nerz-Stormes: "I don't think I have ever worked with a group of people who were so compassionate and interested in their students, dedicated to teaching and passionate about their research. Very few institutions have the sort of balance between teaching and research that Bryn Mawr has."

Professor Sharon Burgmayer agrees: "The way we interact with students is unique," she says. "The word that first comes to mind is, 'nurture.' When Isee some of my former students and they tell me about their experiences at other institutions, I can see that they have a real appreciation for what they experienced here."

The department's graduate program is a special advantage: It allows for serious research to take place-and for undergraduates to participate fully in real scientific work. In a small liberal arts college, that's a rare commodity.

Chemistry major Alexis Webb says she is "an asset to the department, not just another face in a lecture room. In my upper level classes I am treated as a colleague in learning, not just someone who takes exams and writes lab reports."

Chemical trailblazers
The department boasts chemical trailblazers conducting research in unknown territories. Take Frank Mallory, for example, who experiments with graphite using an approach that no one else in the world uses. Mallory is trying to make graphite ribbons that conduct electricity. The copper wires currently used to store information on computer chips can only be made so small before they break apart and lose their structural integrity; a graphite ribbon only one molecule in diameter would be "the ultimate limit in the whole concept of wire," he says.

The motivation for Mallory's work came in 1955 when, as a graduate student at California Institute of Technology, he discovered a photochemical reaction that became the centerpiece of his strategy. "We start with small pieces and assemble them together chemically, making longer and longer units and using as a key step this photochemical reaction."

His objective is not to make a molecular wire, but to do justice to the concept. "We're doing this because it's a challenge, because it's never been done. No one has any idea what kinds of properties these molecules will have. Here is a Mount Everest we can try to climb. It's the kind of motivation that drove people centuries ago to explore the earth and see what was there, whether they could get from point A to point B. We're trying to do the same thing chemically." Mallory described his recent findings at the 10th International Symposium on Novel Aromatics in San Diego in August.

Rebecca Aspden '02 worked in Mallory's lab this summer, experimenting with ways to synthesize chemically modified graphite ribbons in the hopes that they might have greater solubility. She received the Hinchman Award for excellence in a major subject in 2001, and is the first Bryn Mawr student to pursue an AB/MA degree in chemistry in four years. (Her mother, Jeannette Lindsay Aspden '75, majored in classical and Near Eastern archaeology.)

Aspden is grateful for the early immersion in scientific research that the Bryn Mawr chemistry department allows its students. "Even as a freshman, if you have the interest, you are able to research with a full professor and graduate students," she says. 's an amazing opportunity to have at that level of your career. To know what academic research is about, to be put in a situation where you have to organize your work at a young age, is a really valuable experience. Later, you'll know you can meet other challenges because you've done something you didn't think you could do."

Sharon Burgmayer is another pioneer in the department. During a recent sabbatical at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Burgmayer studied molybdenum enzymes, which date back to the earliest points of evolutionary history. "Molybdenum enzymes and their close 'relatives,' tungsten enzymes, may be some of the very first enzymes that were around," Burgmayer says. They have occurred in all forms of life throughout the millennia. In fact, molybdenum enzymes are essential to every living thing-except baker's yeast. Seven undergraduates in Burgmayer's laboratory are synthesizing small molecules that closely duplicate the molybdenum environment in molybdenum enzymes.

"Molybdenum chemists like myself like to tell this little anecdote based on Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The answer that the computer Deep Thought gives to the question of 'the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything' is '42.' The molybdenum chemists say, 'Of course, that's right, because 42 is the atomic number of molybdenum!' "

Burgmayer's results could have an impact on rare genetic diseases linked to the abnormal production of the molybdenum environment in the enzyme (many afflicted with this condition do not survive beyond infancy), and also on high blood pressure, which has been linked to a molybdenum enzyme in the bloodstream.

Assistant Professor William Malachowski's laboratory designs enzyme inhibitors, which could act as drugs that stop or slow the progress of diseases such as emphysema, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer's and cancer. Malachowski's particular application of beta-lactam molecules is unique. His other undertaking is to perfect and standardize a method for producing enzyme inhibitors, one that could be generally adopted by pharmaceutical companies in their manufacture.

Malachowski teaches organic chemistry, and he thinks its study is an effective primer for life in the information age. "The great value in organic chemistry is that you have to absorb large amounts of abstract material, mentally organize it in a manner that allows you to draw upon it readily, and solve problems with it. That's a real intellectual challenge and a fundamental tool that people need."

Clearly, it is a tool chemistry majors will wield confidently upon graduation, thanks to a commitment to hands-on teaching.

Chirality
Chirality is an important chemical concept. Two molecules are chiral if they are structurally identical, but exist as mirror images in three-dimensional space. Among chemistry teachers, a favorite example to explain chirality is your left and right hands: You cannot place your right hand on your left and have all hand parts in the same place. (The active ingredients in caraway seeds and spearmint also demonstrate the concept: Though they have identical molecular structures, the two substances taste differently because they are opposite in chirality.)

The study of pigments and dyes is an involved, separate branch of chemistry. This article discusses how Bryn Mawr chemistry students learn about pigment chemistry's applications in the field of fine arts. Henna is a pigment extracted from a bush called Lawsonia Inermis, part of the loose strife family. In many cultures, including Indian, Middle Eastern, Northern African and Southern Asian, henna is brushed onto the skin in intricate designs to create a temporary tattoo; hands are a commonly decorated body part. (A description of Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, by Jane Caplan, Marjorie Walter Goodhart Professor of History, will appear in the Spring 2002 issue of the Bulletin.) Between these hands are Mobius strip molecules, a subject of investigation for Michelle Francl, Professor of Chemistry.

On single-sex science education
"Being at a women's college is really special. The atmosphere in the classrooms and in the labs is so encouraging. Everyone wants everyone else to do well. It's not a competition; it's not a race. In my high school, in a coed environment, that was not the case. There was a lot more competition in the learning environment, which I don't think is productive. The honor code fosters an environment that's not cut throat. You focus on yourself, but you're enabled somehow to focus on other people in a positive way."
—Rebecca Aspden '02

"Though students do not seem to have the same feminist bent that they did 10 years ago, I think it is still tremendously important for females to learn science in a single-sex environment. Having taught male Post-baccs for many years, I know that male students still tend to dominate classroom discussion, and they come in with the edge in regard to prior mechanical experiences when it comes to lab work. When the women are in a classroom without men, they are more likely to openly participate and in the lab, they are more likely to confidently tackle mechanical operations. It is not an issue of competence, but life experience. I remember being the only woman in all-male chemistry classes. I felt very intimidated and often let the men take over, so I have a very strong opinion about single-sex education."
—Maryellen Nerz-Stormes

"The dynamics when men are in a classroom are quite different. That's the reality we're moving our students toward, of course, but it's a wonderful luxury for them to be in a classroom where the best students are women. They really do develop and turn into terrific chemistry majors. You may have some quiet, fly-on-the-wall chemistry students at the beginning of freshman year, and it's amazing to see the kind of growth they undergo in a rigorous program. They come out swinging in the end."
—Krynn Lukacs

Chemistry for kids
Lisa Chirlian, Science Education Coordinator and Lecturer in Chemistry, is a regular guest on Kids Corner, a children's radio program produced by 88.5 WXPN-FM (the University of Pennsylvania's public radio station). Chirlian's segments can be heard once a month on Thursdays as part of the program's "Science Thursday" series; Kids Corner airs at 7 p.m.

"It's a unique opportunity to present science to kids in a way that's different than how they might learn it in school," she says. "I try to present science as a moving thing as opposed to a stagnant thing, as living and interesting, not as something that's static in a book, or that's only accessible to kids who are really different or really smart." Her programs on topics such as "The Science of Chocolate," "Cuts, Bumps and Bruises" and "It's All in the Family" (about chromosomes and heredity) are available online.

In 2000 the College received a National Science Foundation grant, "Building Bridges: Science Education Reform at Bryn Mawr College," to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration between the science and education departments and among the science departments. To this end Chirlian leads "teaching discussions" periodically throughout the year for Bryn Mawr faculty, with Haverford faculty occasionally joining. She also organized the first annual Science Teaching Symposium last spring, a Tri-College event focusing on pedagogy.

"Many faculty in the Tri-College community use innovative techniques in their classes," she says, "but it can be difficult to get to know people on other campuses without some connection. My hope is to facilitate that sort of cross-pollination."

Seduced by chemistry
For three summers Alexis Webb '02 has participated in the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University of Kentucky. She researches circadian rhythm in the anatomy and neurobiology departments.

"Our lab investigates the gene expression that occurs in the biological clock in order to better understand the mechanisms that cause things like jet lag or the problems associated with shift work. We use a trangenic mouse model that utilizes GFP (green fluorescent protein) as a reporter system; GFP allows us to visualize where in the brain these genes are being expressed, as well as the levels of expression.

"This summer I have been working on several projects, including a study with another lab looking at whether cocaine sensitization influences the levels of circadian gene expression. My role has mainly been taking images of brain slices using an inverted scope with blue light filters that allows the GFP to be seen. I will also be doing transfection of cells to look at what additional response elements activate our promoter and therefore, levels of GFP expression.

"I came to Bryn Mawr knowing that I wanted to pursue an academic career in science: research, teaching, publishing, making small contributions in such a huge field but always striving to learn more. I am planning on applying to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience. I am also planning on applying to the Teach for America program, something that I don't think I would have considered before coming to Bryn Mawr. Teach for America puts college grads in teaching positions in under-funded public schools in urban and rural communities. This seems like an amazing opportunity and challenge. Bryn Mawr has instilled in me this sense of adventure, to experience great things.

"I can say in all honesty that I was seduced by the chemistry department. Taking Gen Chem my freshman year I remember Dr. Lukacs saying to me, 'you want to be a Chem major, you love spending time in lab.' And I do. There's just something to chemistry that suits me. Maybe it's the constant curiosity of it, the need to figure out all the intricacies of a problem. Chemistry has so many layers, from the quantum to biochem to lattice structures of crystals. And yet, everything is connected. With quantum and orbital theory you can understand concepts like lattice structures. Biochem is all organic: your metabolism, your DNA, everything about you is chemistry.

"I love chemistry because it challenges me to look at an idea in a variety of ways, to see the big picture. To be chemist you must be able to think critically, and I feel that that's a skill which will benefit whatever I do in the future."

The legend
Beloved by students, alumnae/i and fellow faculty, Ernst Berliner arrived at Bryn Mawr on D-Day, 1944. And though he reached mandatory retirement age in 1985, he still visits his office in the Park Science building nearly every morning, even during summer months, dressed in a sports jacket.

As a professor Berliner was deeply involved in affairs of the College, serving on many committees and as secretary of the faculty. But career-wise, he is proudest of his 20-year-plus stint as chair of the chemistry department, from 1951 to 1976. The weekly colloquia he organized featured distinguished speakers and drew attendees from all over the area, including Princeton. ("Someone at the University of Pennsylvania is quoted as saying, 'How does he get all those people?' " Berliner says.) The combined science library has been the most positive change in the department over the years, he says. "It's a big step."

Berliner's spouse, Frances Bondhus Berliner, Ph.D. '47, chemistry, was also a longtime member of the chemistry faculty, from 1955 to 1985. Berliner was born in Katowice, Poland (then Germany), in 1915, was educated at the universities of Breslau (now Wroclaw) and Freiburg in Germany and came to the United States in 1940. As Harvard Refugee Scholar, he received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1943. The bulk of his research focused on aromatic substitutions. He received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1961 and the Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1975.

The p-orbital trick
Grace Chou '01 moved from her native Taiwan to Cambridge this fall to begin a Ph.D. program in physical chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received a General Electric Fund Fellowship, which aims to develop new faculty-primarily underrepresented women and minorities-in engineering and the physical sciences. She double majored in physics and chemistry.

"MIT gave me the option of not becoming a teaching assistant my first year, but I will be a TA regardless. I think it will be good training for me.

"I was fortunate to have a quantum chemist as my general chemistry professor. During a casual office hour conversation, she told me that p-orbitals (a demonstrative model commonly taught to high school chemistry students) were fabricated by scientists. They actually don't exist. This information was supposedly, she said, the secret reserved for a major who took physical chemistry. Out of curiosity, I took physical chemistry the following fall as a sophomore and loved it. I declared a chemistry major in the spring.

"I think chemistry is a happy midway between physics and biology. The discipline is broad enough that a well-trained chemistry student can go into specialized fields in biology, applied physics, engineering or any other interdisciplinary program with some additional training.

"Quantum mechanics and symmetry fascinate me. These theories allow one to understand general chemistry-baby chemistry-from a very fundamental level, and everything I learned since middle school just miraculously fit together. It's beautiful."

To Togo
School children in remote Togo, Africa, have modern sports equipment and team uniforms thanks to Susan White, Associate Professor and Chair of the Chemistry Department. White's first teaching post was in Togo from 1978-1981 as a Peace Corps volunteer. She has returned frequently over the years, demonstrating computers to schoolchildren on a laptop donated by Bruce Saunders, Professor of Geology, delivering soccer balls and basketballs, or assisting the high school and the town librarian in ordering books, magazines and word games.

When the town recently cleared trees for an athletic field, White donated used athletic equipment and team uniforms. Then she enlisted the help of Amy Campbell, Director of Athletics and Physical Education, who organized a sneaker drive. Campbell and White sent a big box of sneakers to the school this summer. White has invited Togolese molecular biochemist Koffi Tozo to use her laboratory for three months. "It's just so hard to do research where he is," White says. "Plus I figured he could help my students purify their proteins!" Tozo is researching ways to improve yams, a staple of the Togolese diet. For more information, see: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_edu/Togo/

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