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Merck Symposium to Highlight Student-Faculty Summer Research

RELEASED: July 27, 2005

EAU CLAIRE — Biology and chemistry students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire will showcase the results of their summer research at the second annual Merck Symposium Aug. 11.

Students working on the Merck-sponsored project, "Oxidative Chemistry of Azo Dyes," and other students who performed research in the chemistry and biology departments will present the results of their work during the daylong symposium, which will take place in Room 219 of Phillips Hall.

The program will include short research talks beginning at 9:30 a.m., with a poster session from 2-3 p.m., said Alan Gengenbach, assistant professor of chemistry.

The symposium will end with a seminar by Larry Wackett, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology and biophysics and the Biotechnology Institute at the University of Minnesota. In his 3 p.m. talk, titled "Biodegradation and Bioremediation: Where Chemistry Meets Biology," he will describe the use of bioremediation in the clean-up of sites contaminated with atrazine.

Wackett's research interests, which include biodegradation, dehalogenases, industrial biotransformations and metalloenzymes, are related to the Merck project and involve chemistry and biology.

"His talk should appeal to the whole audience, not just the chemists or the biologists," said Gengenbach. "When I was an undergraduate, I attended a seminar he presented. Although I have forgotten most of the details, I remember thinking it was the coolest stuff I'd ever seen."

The Merck Symposium grew out of a Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Grant awarded in 2004 to UW-Eau Claire, Gengenbach and assistant professors of chemistry Sasha Showsh and Marcia Miller-Rodeberg. The grant, which supports faculty-student research with an emphasis on collaborations between chemistry and biology faculty, funds various projects concerning the degradation of azo dyes, a group of highly colored molecules widely used for dyeing textiles.

According to Gengenbach, significant amounts of these dyes end up in the environment, and the naturally occurring processes responsible for degradation of the chemicals are slow and usually produce toxic materials. The collaborative project involves studying catalytic oxidations of these dyes using various substances.

"We want to understand how these molecules react with metalloporphyrins and how the specific chemical structure of the dyes affects their reactivity," said Gengenbach, noting that Miller-Rodeberg and Showsh and their students are studying reactions catalyzed by enzymes and microorganisms, respectively.

The five Merck Scholars working on the project this summer are Miranda Myers, a junior biology major from Stevens Point; Ellen Christensen, a junior biology major from River Falls; Sam Walters, a sophomore chemistry major from Hermantown, Minn.; Anthonia Arikawe, a junior economics major and chemistry minor from Nigeria; and Casey Guinn, a biochemistry/molecular biology senior from New Richmond.

"Ultimately such fundamental knowledge could lead to new bioremediation techniques or suggest which dyes are more easily degraded and therefore less harmful to the environment," Gengenbach said.

Undergraduate research is an inseparable part of teaching at UW-Eau Claire and has proven to be a powerful means of integrating formal course and laboratory work with the more open-ended problem-solving activities of practicing scientists, said Gengenbach.

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JW/JB

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