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December 1, 2009

Perspective – The view through safety goggles

Folks around Rieke Science Center – and sometimes in other parts of campus when I’m running late for a meeting – often see me donning a certain accessory that is quintessential to chemists worldwide: safety goggles. We all wear them. Our laboratory students often complain that the goggles are uncomfortable or fog up during a frustrating lab day. But as a regular user through my years in research, I’m indebted to them for reasons beyond their obvious fashion statement. They have certainly saved my corneas from numerous unexpected splashes or flying shards of glass in the lab. (You can speak to some of my graduate school lab mates on that note.)

But safety goggles are more than just an eye shield and stylish accessory. They are something of a metaphor. Chemists view the world through a unique lens that goes beyond the shatterproof polycarbonate.

From the mundane task of waiting for water to boil for tea to the spectacle of fireworks blasting from the top of the Space Needle, chemists can envision things differently compared to other people. Inspecting a snowflake, I can envision the shape arising from the H2O molecules lining up in beautiful geometric arrays that are intrinsically, but invisibly, beautiful. When I’m munching on a spicy, deep fried jalapeño popper, I often recall the structure of capsaicin, why it’s “hot” and so deliciously fat-soluble.

Chemistry describes the way that we, as humans, look at things at an atomic or molecular level. We study the “stuff” that makes up the universe, but think about it on a very particular, tiny, invisible scale.

My specialty is finding new ways to make interesting or important organic compounds – those made of mostly carbon and hydrogen atoms. While many organic compounds are conveniently found in Nature (such as the innumerable caffeine molecules I drink on my way to campus each morning), others must be synthesized in labs – like aspirin or aspartame. What my students and I do in our experiments actually bears many parallels to cooking. By varying the amounts or types of ingredients, the order we add them to the pot, and the time and temperature we heat or cool them, we work to eventually perfect the finished dish – the target compound.

Safety goggles aren’t powerful enough to actually let us see compounds we make. And, unlike the chemists of the early 1900s, we don’t taste our products in the lab anymore, either. We must use special instruments to help us “see” and “taste” compounds to understand how atoms have arranged themselves into molecules. By shining ultraviolet (UV), visible, infrared (IR), microwave, or X-ray light at molecules, we can illuminate intriguing bits of information that help us develop better ideas of the structure of molecules. Thanks to the National Science Foundation, the atomic force microscope that professor Dean Waldow and his students use allow them to “see” large molecules by producing images of polymers or DNA adhering to a surface.

By way of another NSF grant, PLU is now the proud owner of a powerful nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer whereby, for example, we can “see” the arrangements of hydrogen and carbon atoms in a compound. This allows us to figure out its structure or shape. Students will often stop to watch the NMR’s nifty robotic arm dropping or picking up samples from the magnet barrel as they walk by its new home – a bright, windowed lab redesigned thanks to generous gifts from alumni and friends of the university.

Inspiring bright, young Lutes to “put on their goggles” and ask their own questions about “stuff” is key to our work as faculty in the chemistry department. Students at PLU receive excellent hands-on training in the classrooms and laboratories of Rieke. Now is a particularly exciting time in the chemistry department. With near record numbers of majors, student-faculty research projects recently have ranged from investigating additives that would give polymers or plastics new properties, designing tiny batteries, to developing “greener” ways to make drugs to treat cancer or sickle cell anemia.

In fact, 10 students worked with faculty members this past summer on independent research projects as part of the Natural Sciences Division Undergraduate Research Program, supported by external grants as well as endowed PLU research fellowships. Upon getting some exciting results after months in the lab, these students have the chance to present their work both on campus and at professional conferences. This spring, a group of student chemists will travel with their mentors to San Francisco to present their work at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society – perhaps the premier chemistry conference in the world. It’s always good to meet up with your fellow “goggle-wearers” from around the world to see what problems they’ve been looking at.

Once students begin to see things through their own goggles, we encourage them to share their new knowledge and unique view of the world around us. The department hosts several events each year to invite the rest of the campus and the wider community into our labs to put on some goggles and see chemistry in action.

During the annual “Mole Day Eve Spooktacular” in October and “Desserts and Demos” in April, members of the PLU Chem Club get a chance to inspire a new generation of curious scientists, including those from area middles schools, who have fun making long strings of Nylon, mixing glowing slime, and investigating models of solar-powered hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Our visitors even get the chance to take out the Porsche of the department – the new NMR spectrometer, that is – for a test spin, using it to compare the structures of ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

So, when you get the chance, don’t be afraid to try on a pair of goggles and think about your own atoms and molecules. You’ll never look at your morning coffee the same way again.

– Perspective by Neal Yakelis, assistant professor of chemistry