In May of 2012, Luther received a goliath of a grant: $1.5 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The HHMI awarded the grant as part of its Preparing Future K–12 Teachers Program, which, says Luther professor of biology Scott Carlson, “increases the connection between future educators and scientists, between those bound for graduate school and those bound for the classroom.” After all, he says, “Educators who encounter research as an undergraduate prove to be more effective teachers.” And better teachers, of course, groom better future scientists.
The lion’s share of the four-year grant, according to Carlson, has gone toward summer research trios that take advantage of Luther’s engaged faculty and their willingness to collaborate with students. Each of the seven trios receiving funding this summer comprises one faculty advisor, one science student, and one educator (either a pre-service undergraduate education student or an educator already working as a high school or middle school teacher). Here, we took a closer look at one of the trios, researching hazardous molecules.
How does a sugar hound trap a pollutant?
With a sugar bucket!
Associate professor of chemistry Olga Rinco runs a sugar-fueled lab. “I bought them two bags of candy when I went away, and I was gone for seven days. One of them was a huge bag of candy. And it was all gone when I came back.”
Her students readily admit to frequent trips to the candy dish, and in addition they’ve turned bringing in treats for the lab into a loser’s burden.
“I owe everybody treats because I lost the laughing game that we play,” says Jenna Huju ’14, an affable education major.
“We have to keep ourselves entertained sometimes,” explains Grace Gast ’14, a chemistry and math double major. “We tried to see how long we could go without laughing, and it lasted about two minutes. Now, every once in a while, someone will decide the game has started, and whoever is the first one to laugh has to bring in treats.”
But the lab runs on sugar in another way, too (bear with the non-beginner’s-level science for a moment). Rinco and her students look at how molecules react when excited with light. This summer, they studied molecules that are environmentally hazardous, specifically PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons), and furans, another class of molecules. While there are now wide bans in place against them, industry has produced these molecules on a large scale, and because they don’t degrade easily, they’re everywhere, including in the water supply.
Rinco and her students wanted to know what happens when you cage these molecules inside some other system and excite them with light. “It’s kind of like if you feed a child chocolate, you watch that chocolate burn off in the energy that the child gives off afterward”—naturally, she uses a sugar metaphor to explain it—“and that’s kind of what we do: we give the molecules energy by light, and then we watch them give that energy back off through fluorescence. So what we’re really looking for is if there are differences in that fluorescence and that chemical property between when they’re in water and when they’re caged in one of our cages.”
And what exactly is this mysterious cage? Well, it’s a super molecular system, in this case a cyclodextrin that consists of five, six, or seven sugars—in essence, a sugar bucket. It has no bottom, however, so it’s open on both ends, and molecules under study can slide in and out (they don’t form chemical bonds with the bucket). The trio asked to what extent certain molecules go inside the bucket or not, and to what extent they stay there.
While this project allowed students to gain lab experience, it also has some valuable real-world applications. Researchers are trying to find ways to make these molecules attach more soundly to cyclodextrins so that the cyclodextrins could be removed—with the pollutants attached—from the water. “If we could tell the people who do the bigger work which molecules have a chance of working, then they could do more with it,” Rinco says.
“A lot of chemistry that’s done to detect these pollutants is either really expensive or can be fairly toxic,” she continues. “Our method of shining a light on it—fluorimeters—is actually fairly inexpensive. And cyclodextrin sugar buckets are not harmful—they’re completely inert. So, again, if we put out there the ideas of at what concentrations they can be detected and how that chemistry changes, maybe other people will develop ways of detection that are cheaper, less harmful, and use fewer chemicals.”
The group has also begun experimenting with putting the hazardous molecules into a biological host, in this case micelles (tiny aggregates of molecules). Next summer, she speculates that they might put the molecules in DNA to determine whether they intercolate (stick between the rungs of the DNA ladder), eventually collaborating with other researchers to see whether they damage DNA.
As a teacher, Rinco says, “I try to model a true research experience. In some labs”—during the school year, for instance—“it might be nine to 12 hours of research over three to four weeks of labs. But if you think about it, my summer students are working eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight weeks. They see what real science is really like. At the start, I give them the experiments to do, but I have no idea what the results will be, whereas in class labs, we give the students something to do, and I know exactly what should happen. They might not know what should happen, and that’s how you model discovery for the students, but I know what should happen, I know what’s right and wrong. But here, the students will ask me questions like, ‘This is what happened—is that right?’ and I’m like, ‘There is no right or wrong—that’s just what happened.’ ”
Huju, the education major in the trio, speculates that the experience will help her explain to future students what it’s actually like to work in a lab and better show them how to work in teams. For Gast, who plans to pursue graduate study in chemistry, it’s been a great precursor to grad school. “I really like that here, we’re working as a group,” she says, referring not only to Huju but also to the other three students in Rinco’s summer lab. “And when I have problems, I don’t necessarily go to Olga, but I work with someone else in the group. That’s what I’ll have to do when I go into a grad program.”
At that very moment, however, she looks warily over her shoulder. “He’s playing with my data,” she says nervously, nodding at another student.
“You can reanalyze it later, make sure he did it right,” Rinco reassures her.
Gast makes a skeptical face, fine-tuned, no doubt, from a summer of practice, and everyone starts laughing.
But, um, whoever started first? Yeah, it’s your turn to bring treats.