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During her first year at Lafayette, Sarah Kolb ’07 (Berkley Heights, N.J.) conducted general experiments in a chemistry lab, but those were nothing compared to the experiments she performed this summer with catalyzing-producing compounds.

With the help of Chip Nataro, assistant professor of chemistry, Kolb tweaked a chemical compound, used to force chemical reactions, to learn how those changes affect the compound’s behavior.

Kolb, a biochemistry major, and Nataro worked together as part of the Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, which allows students to conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

“Just about any commercial chemical out there — plastics, gasoline — is treated at some point in its life with a catalyst,” Nataro says. “Part of the cost of treating the chemical is how long the catalyst lives. The more frequently it breaks down and falls apart, the more expensive the process is going to be.”

The pair worked on producing compounds that live longer and have to be replaced less frequently. The catalyst creating the compounds could be used to enhance the technology of plastic making, be applied to make pharmaceuticals, or help to reduce the amount of sulfur in gasoline, eliminating acid rain, Nataro says.

Making subtle changes to one compound to learn how it behaves differently sounds simple enough, but Kolb actually created, or synthesized, and tweaked many derivatives, she says.

Creating these compounds can take hours, days or even weeks, and there’s no way of knowing if the effort that goes into creating a compound will be rewarded with resulting product able to catalyze a reaction.

Testing the compounds’ many variations can also become a time consuming and frustrating process, Kolb admits.

“Since a lot of this work hasn’t been done before, we hit bumps in the road all the time, and we had to take a step back and see what’s wrong,” Nataro says.

But Kolb, who is very persistent and has excellent lab skills, learned much more quickly than if she simply had read about catalyst compounds, he says.

“It’s exposure to new things; ­the more times you see it, the more you’re going to understand it,” Nataro adds.

This lab work not only has given Kolb an advantage in her Organic Chemistry class this fall, it gave her insight into how scientists conduct research.

“She’s learned that we don’t know all the answers, which I think is an important growth step,” Nataro says. “We struggled right along with them in the research project.”

But her work wasn’t all struggle, Kolb says.

“It’s not that my summer was full of frustration,” she says. “A lot of things worked. It’s always really exciting when something works because…one success can usually lead to many others.”

Kolb belongs to the student chapter of the American Chemistry Society, plays intramural lacrosse, and is a resident adviser. She volunteers at a Bethlehem pediatrician’s office and in several programs coordinated by Lafayette’s Landis Community Outreach Center, including Kids in the Community; Big Brothers, Big Sisters; and Boys and Girls Club.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News