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Biochemistry major Annalese Maddox ’07 (Carrollton, Ga.) hasn’t quite decided what career path to follow, but the work she did in a chemistry lab this summer will certainly help make up her mind.

Maddox conducted experiments aimed at improving on a chemical compound used in catalysts.

She conducted the work with Chip Nataro, assistant professor of chemistry, through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, which gives students the opportunity to conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. It 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 researchers turned their attention on developing compounds that live longer and have to be replaced less frequently. They also worked on decreasing the effort involved in creating catalysts by synthesizing a version of the compound that ultimately takes less time and money. The work could enhance the technology of plastic making, which is saying nothing of the potential for easing the pharmaceutical-making process, or making cleaner gasoline, Nataro says.

Maddox, whom Nataro describes as meticulous and patient, was well suited to the intensive lab, using inert atmospheric techniques to conduct the experiments and magnetic resonance imagery to test the results.

And the work reinforced in Maddox her love of chemistry, making the decision to pursue graduate school or medical school a difficult one, she says.

“I’m starting to look at doing an MD Ph.D program, which will take longer and be more rigorous, but will incorporate work in both chemistry and biology,” Maddox says.

She believes she learned much about her abilities through the lab work, regardless of the path she chooses to take.

“One of the main things I’ve developed is definitely confidence and being comfortable with what you can handle,” Maddox says.

An additional benefit of spending her summer working in a lab was mastering many of the concepts covered in organic chemistry and understanding the true nature of laboratory research, Nataro adds.

“She learned that we don’t know all the answers, which I think is an important growth step,” he says. “[I] struggled right along with [her] in the research project.”

Maddox also learned how to think more quickly on her feet.

“When you’re working with a new compound, and when you add a new chemical group, you don’t know how it’s going to respond,” she says. “Hopefully it won’t blow up in your face, but if it does, you have to know how to respond.”

And there were things that went wrong.

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

“I’ve always enjoyed puzzles and trying to put different things together and figuring out how they’re going to work,” Maddox adds.

A graduate of Carrollton High School, Maddox is a member of the student chapter of the American Chemistry Society and the fencing team.

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