Feature News

Summer research thrives in new home: Wentz Science Center

Aug 16, 2017

Faculty-student research at North Central College had a new home this summer: the Dr. Myron Wentz Science Center.

The College’s biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and computer science labs were filled with new and familiar equipment and dozens of student researchers eager to explore.    

“For the first time, all of our events are sharing the same community space,” said Nicholas Mauro, coordinator of the College’s summer community research program and assistant professor of physics. “We could more easily work together on projects and cross disciplines. It’s more communal and conducive to collaboration.”

Some 84 students and faculty were engaged in the summer research program on campus. Projects spanned multiple disciplines, from business, psychology and the sciences to theatre, computer science and languages. Students had opportunities to pursue independent or faculty-directed research projects and all were invited to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Colloquium (SURC).

The colloquium featured weekly group discussions, faculty speakers and opportunities for students to present progress on their research. “Scholarship isn’t scholarship unless it’s communicated,” said Mauro. “Students learned to present what they’ve done and gained valuable skills. The whole experience builds our community of researchers.”

Mauro and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Nicholas Boaz designed their projects to overlap. Physics major and aspiring chemical engineer Mayson Whipple ’18 (photo, below) and biochemistry major Anthony Dominic ’20 (photo) worked with both faculty on a project with potential to impact an industry.  

“We’re synthesizing ionic liquids or molten salts, which may be better fillers for batteries,” said Whipple. “We want to figure out exactly what these ionic liquids look like at the molecular level when they’re a liquid. Right now, propylene carbonate and lithium are used in batteries and can be toxic and explosive, like those in cell phones.”

“This is a great project,” said Dominic, “because there’s been a lot of chemistry and physics crossover.” Under Boaz’s direction, Dominic and Whipple “created materials” in the chemistry lab, then joined Mauro to further research the molecules. Some research work was performed at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory.

Boaz also advised biochemistry majors Mary Lanoue ’18 and Maia Prince ’20 on separate projects. Lanoue designed a project looking at synthesizing inhibitors to kill water mold that infects frog eggs. Prince, who’s minoring in computer science and bioinformatics, used the Center’s new NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectrometer for her research analyses this summer.

“I’m looking for chemically unique hydrogens and making notes on how they should show up in the spectral analysis using the new spectrometer,” said Prince. The new NMR instrument (photo, below, with Lanoue) is more powerful than previous equipment, said Boaz: “It’s the closest thing these students will get to driving a Ferrari. At North Central, letting students get hands-on experience with high-powered equipment is a vital part of the curriculum.”

Boaz and collaborators were recently awarded a patent for his research as a doctorate student at Princeton University. He worked alongside researchers nationwide as part of the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization.

Their research looked at ways to liquefy natural gas so it could be transported and used, like oil through pipelines. Currently in the shale lands of North Dakota, natural gas is being flared off and wasted. If natural gas could be liquefied, inexpensively and safely, then it could be a useful source of energy. Their research discovered that the key to their chemical reaction was salt.

Since coming to North Central, Boaz has built on those research efforts and involved several students, chemistry major Haley Kuck ’18, biochemistry majors Kelsey LaMartina ’18 and Asma Al-Odaini ’18, and biology major Linda Oglesbee ’19. “We’re using what we learned in the patent and adapted that to a slightly more complex molecule. We’re working on something that’s never been done before. And that’s very exciting.”

Boaz plans to publish a paper on their research, naming Kuck, LaMartina, Al-Odaini and Oglesbee as coauthors. “It’s important to me that students are published in a scientific journal by the time they apply to graduate or medical school. That’s my job,” said Boaz.

[Photo, below: Nicholas Mauro (left), assistant professor of physics, Nicholas Boaz, assistant professor of chemistry]