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UW-Eau Claire student research to be published in Journal of Physical Organic Chemistry

RELEASED: Nov. 16, 2011

Journal of Physical Organic Chemistry
(From left) Dr. Jim Phillips, Robin Knauf and Heather Helminiak (Photo by Kristen Gustavson)

EAU CLAIRE — Research done by a chemistry professor and a team of undergraduate student researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire will be published in the Journal of Physical Organic Chemistry.

Robin Knauf, a Rothschild native who earned a degree in chemistry in 2011 and now is pursuing her doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the principal author on the article, titled "Structural and energetic properties of alkylfluoride BF3 complexes in the gas phase and condensed-phase  media: Computations and matrix infrared spectroscopy."

Heather Helminiak, a senior chemistry major from Junction City, and John Wrass, a 2010 chemistry graduate, worked with Knauf and Dr. Jim Phillips, professor of chemistry, on the research project.

"This project was tough," Phillips said. "We were lost on this for almost two years after collecting our initial data. We made a major breakthrough two summers ago, which allowed this to come together. It came together mainly because Heather and Robin are two of the sharpest and most diligent students I have ever had, and they learned from John, who had the top experimental skills of anyone in the history of my group."

It's especially noteworthy that Knauf wrote the article accepted for publication while still an undergraduate student, Phillips said, adding that she provided him with a nearly final draft a week before the article had to be submitted for publication.

"Some undergraduates can write at a level that approaches seasoned professionals," Phillips said. "I've had students write drafts before, but they typically required much more rewriting. Robin's work to write this manuscript is nothing short of remarkable. This level of student involvement is unprecedented as far as I know."

Knauf said she has benefited greatly from the research experience.

"Doing research gave me an opportunity to apply what I had learned and also contribute new ideas and points of view on various projects, which is not always easily achieved in a classroom setting," Knauf said. "The experience not only persuaded me to go to graduate school, but helped me to get accepted into a top graduate school. Helping write and submit a paper to a professional journal was a great learning experience for me and has provided me with a skill I have found to be essential for graduate school."

Working on student-faculty research projects enhanced her undergraduate education, making her a more well-rounded chemistry student, Helminiak said.

"The research has not changed my future plans, but it definitely has influenced them," said Helminiak, who plans to teach high school science. "I approach problems differently. I've gained patience from trying to work with equipment that didn't want to cooperate. I've taught new group members the ins and outs of our research experimentally and computationally. It allowed me to participate in the Research Experience for Undergraduates, where I mentored a student from the Minnesota Community College. All of this gave me experience in explaining our research and helping newcomers begin projects. Many of the things I've learned I can apply to my professional career. These experiences will help shape me to be the teacher I want to be."

Having her work published before she earns her undergraduate degree also will help her stand out from other applicants when she applies for jobs, said Helminiak, who will have one article published and another close to being published before she graduates in May 2012.

The students' success in conducting the research and Knauf's success in writing an article accepted for publication are examples of UW-Eau Claire science faculty members' commitment to preparing students in ways that will allow them to excel in graduate school and in their careers, Phillips said.

"Coaching Robin through this paper, which she wrote almost to the end, is the best work of my career in terms of student development, without a doubt," Phillips said. "Seeing a student succeed in this way is more rewarding to me than even my own scholarly work."

Phillips said the chemistry department also deserves credit for its willingness to be flexible and its commitment to adapting curriculum to meet current students' needs. For example, curricular changes that refined the department's Honors Program requirements strengthened his students' research experience, he said.

"Robin was in the first cohort to do a required manuscript, which is reviewed by two faculty members other than the mentor," Phillips said. "Heather is doing the same thing this year. Also, Robin was allowed to substitute her research/writing project for the senior lab course. We formalized faculty-student research and gave real course credit for it."

For more information, contact Dr. Jim Phillips at 715-836-5399 or



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