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UW-Eau Claire Chemistry Department
Busy With Summer Research

 MAILED:  July 18, 2003

EAU CLAIRE - The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's chemistry department is quietly humming with activity as 13 faculty members and more than 25 undergraduates engage in a wide range of summer research projects involving organic and inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, physical chemistry, photochemistry, and surface and analytical chemistry.

Dr. David Lewis, who has six students currently assisting him with several ongoing research efforts in organic chemistry, described himself and his students as "molecule builders." One of their research efforts involves developing a strategy for synthesizing certain aconite alkaloids that are highly toxic but have been used in China for more than ten years to help suppress withdrawal syndrome in heroin addicts. The specific structural features of the alkaloids that are responsible for this effect are not understood, so Lewis and his students will be engaged in making and then modifying synthetic alkaloid molecules and testing and studying resulting reactions. By learning what key structural features are responsible for the suppression effects, the researchers may be able to identify compounds that might be less toxic and/or more effective in addressing not only heroin addiction, but also addiction to other substances, such as cocaine, amphetamines or nicotine.

Lewis stresses that this research is still in the early stages. "If you compare the ultimate goal of our research to, say, building a cathedral, then we're still building low-income housing," said Lewis.

Another project Lewis and his students are working on involves making fluorescent dyes for tagging molecules. The dyes could not only make it easier for researchers to follow where molecules migrate in cells, but also might have other applications, such as in medical diagnoses.

Dr. Alan Gengenbach, who works in the area of inorganic chemistry, currently has two students working with him full-time, and he said they are also making molecules. Their work involves studying porphyrins, molecules found as part of many different proteins and enzymes in the human body. In hemoglobin, for example, a porphyrin is responsible for giving blood its red color.

Gengenbach and his students are making, modifying and studying porphyrin molecules because they are known to be effective catalysts for biological and other reactions. Their specific interest is in studying porphyrins that catalyze the degradation of perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent that contaminates groundwater. Their ultimate goal, which Gengenbach also stresses is probably far down the road, is to find compounds that might be even more effective or useful for breaking down perchloroethylene and cleaning up or protecting the environment.

Gengenbach said he enjoys working with undergraduate students and tries to teach them basic research techniques so they can work as independently as possible. Although he guides them in the general direction he wants the research to go, he said his goal is to teach them how to solve problems, make connections, and eventually get to the point where they begin to have their own ideas about what to do next.

"I'm as interested in the learning process that occurs during research as I am in the results of the research itself," said Gengenbach.

Dr. Ignacia Porras, a visting professor from the University of Granada, Spain, also is working on research with Dr. Fred King this summer, giving some students the opportunity to get another point of view and see how researchers in other parts of the world approach problems.

Students currently involved in student/faculty research in the chemistry department are senior Nicholas Robertson, Eau Claire, and junior Joey Rosemeyer, Platteville, working with Dr. Mike Carney; seniors Nathan Pillsbury, Peshtigo, Emily Gilles, Plum City, and Logan Ausman, Eau Claire, working with Dr. Steve Drucker (Ausman is also working with professor emeritus Dr. Jack Pladziewicz); senior Jill Hudacek, Bloomer, working with Dr. Elisabetta Fasella; senior Matthew Giese, Eau Claire, working with Dr. Warren Gallagher; juniors Anna Dahl, Hudson, and Bernard Huettl, Eau Claire, working with Gengenbach; senior Rachel Nauss, Eau Claire, working with Dr. Scott Hartsel; seniors Elizabeth Burgener, Gleason, Chong Hoong Leong, Malaysia, and Corey Schuster, Elcho, working with King and Porras; seniors Nicholas Deprez, Green Bay, Glen Gullickson, Chippewa Falls, Paul Erdman, Champlin, Minn., and Kristy McNitt, Spooner, and juniors Grant Sormunen, Duluth, Minn., and Jessica Ann Walters, Clearwater, Minn., working with Lewis; sophomore Katie Atherton, Waukesha, junior Christopher Conklin, Green Bay, and seniors Brenda Cook, Shell Lake, Matthew Goertz, Manitowoc, and Timothy Schleusner, Eau Claire, working with Dr. Marc McEllistrem; seniors Jennifer Biesterveld, Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and Michael Mbughuni, Stevens Point, working with Dr. Marcia Miller-Rodeberg: sophomores Christopher Knutson, Beaver Dam, and John Wrass, New Berlin, working with Dr. James Phillips; and senior Erin Moritz, Baraboo, working with Dr. Mel Sahyun.

Designated by the UW System as a Center of Excellence for Faculty and Undergraduate Student Research Collaboration, UW-Eau Claire annually awards more than $500,000 for faculty student research projects. In the chemistry department, many research projects are also funded by organizations like the National Science Foundation through the successful grant writing efforts of UW-Eau Claire's chemistry faculty.
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Updated: July 18, 2003