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Marquis Scholar Kate Buettner ’07 (Chagrin Falls, Ohio) is conducting research that will lead to a better understanding of trace metal chemistry in aquatic systems.

She is working with Steven Mylon, assistant professor of chemistry, on experiments to measure the specific complexes that trace metals form in natural aquatic systems. This work has direct environmental applications as trace metals are known to be toxic in high concentrations but are required as nutrients in low concentrations.

The two are collaborating through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students 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.

Mylon explains that trace metals form complexes with organic compounds found in lakes, rivers, and oceans. Copper, for instance, is a required element in the biological reduction of nitrate to nitrogen gas (denitrification). Some copper complexes may not be available to bacteria that take in nitrate. Without the proper amount of copper, this process terminates, resulting in a build-up of nitrous oxide, an important greenhouse gas.

“This [study] will help us better understand the important copper complexes in some aquatic systems,” says Mylon. “The interplay between copper complexation and bacterial denitrification in natural systems will also lead to a better understanding of the global nitrogen cycle.”

The research project provides benefits for Buettner in addition to the scientific knowledge she is acquiring. Because Mylon joined Lafayette’s faculty this year, she is seeing what it is like to initiate a scientific experimentation program, and she has the rare opportunity to do significant scientific research at the undergraduate level.

“It’s a new project so right now I’m helping him get started,” says Buettner, a graduate of Kenston High School in Chagrin Falls. “Our first step is setting up the lab, figuring out what equipment we will need, and ordering supplies. It’s a great experience because that’s the kind of thing one normally takes for granted; you walk into a lab and everything is there for you. I’m getting the chance to see all the different options [for lab equipment] there are. Now I realize how many supplies you need and what is best suited for our specific experiment.”

Once the experiment begins, Buettner will use electrochemistry to interpret the make-up and strength of the metal complexes.

“It’s such a great opportunity,” she says. “I’m learning what it takes to set up a lab and I’m reviewing previously completed research. Then, I’ll be using the latest equipment to do our research.”

“The EXCEL program is great because I will be able to apply what I have learned in classes. I’ll be able to see results that can be used in the real world; it’s not just a lab experiment for class,” she says.

Mylon adds that Buettner will get other benefits as well.

“She will learn to trouble-shoot and recognize when we are getting bad results,” he says. “Things don’t go flawlessly in the lab; there are a lot of times when things just don’t work properly. She’ll be able to trace why something went wrong; this is a necessary part of research. This is something few undergraduates would ever get the chance to experience.”

Although Buettner isn’t sure what she wants to do after Lafayette, she believes this project will give her a flavor of what lab work is like.

“It will help me decide if I want to go to grad school and it will show me what I can do,” she says.

Buettner is a volunteer at the Third Street Alliance in Easton, a shelter for women and children, and for Kids in the Community, a Lafayette after-school program for children. She is also treasurer for the student chapter of the American Chemistry Society.

Chosen from among Lafayette’s most promising applicants, Marquis Scholars like Buettner receive special financial aid and distinctive educational experiences and benefits, including a three-week, Lafayette-funded study-abroad course during January’s interim session between semesters. Marquis Scholars also participate in cultural activities in major cities and on campus, and mentoring programs with Lafayette faculty.

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