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His research might not ever become universally known, but each time chemistry major Matthew Saybolt ’06 (Little Silver, N.J.) steps into the lab to conduct an experiment, he’s as excited as if he were about to change the universe.

“What I’m doing has never been done before,” he says. “We’re developing an entirely new way of doing things, which makes it really interesting. We’re not sure what results we’re going to get when we do certain tests, and the unknown is extremely interesting to me.”

Saybolt’s work involves testing the stability of a compound as a research assistant for Chip Nataro, assistant professor of chemistry. They are conducting the work 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

Nataro has charged Saybolt with modifying derivatives of the compound dppf to learn how the changes affect the way the compounds create reactions.

“People know these compounds work, but they are not really sure why, so we’re kind of asking that scientific question,” Nataro says. “How can we understand this better, why they work, how they work? Essentially we’ll be able to put together a library that outlines what will happen if you make subtle changes and maybe that will be able to be applied to a particular application and these subtle changes will make for a better catalyst.

“Someday they will all come together to tell a nice story.”

Nataro recently received his second grant from the Petroleum Research Fund administered by the American Chemical Society to conduct research with Lafayette students on catalytic compounds.

Saybolt has been entirely responsible for testing one particular derivative of the compound and assisted with a side project that involved creating another compound from scratch.

“I’ve been trying to synthesize a compound we studied last semester,” he says. “It’s a patented compound, so it’s extremely expensive, and I’ve been having to do a lot of research in academic journals to piece together a synthesis of this compound in the laboratory.”

Saybolt adds that the trust and freedom given by Nataro have benefited him greatly.

“My skills in the laboratory have increased, which has helped me in my class work,” he says. “I find a lot of chemistry to be hands-on. You can learn a lot in a book, but you can learn a lot more actually doing it — you have to examine the results, study them, figure out what they mean. I’m really understanding chemistry a lot more than if I were just reading it in a book, or remembering it for a test.”

He says that his research skills have also improved through using new techniques for the synthesis experiments.

Saybolt had excellent lab skills when he came to the project, says Nataro, who chose the student for his technique as well as his analytic thinking.

“He doesn’t get frustrated when things don’t work out and he’s had some struggles, but he’s been great,” Nataro adds. “He comes to work excited every day and this research is not doubt rounding out his education.”

He’s not only learning that real-world experiments don’t work out nearly as easily as those set up in the classroom, but also that experiments often lead to more questions than answers.

“He comes to me with questions and I say, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’” Nataro says. “I’m putting the responsibility on him to show him we don’t have all the answers.”

Saybolt might find some of those answers, as he plans to continue the research until he graduates. But even if he doesn’t, the work he is conducting will serve him well in medical school.

“Most schools I’m applying for really encourage med students to conduct research, so whether I’m studying chemistry, biology, or neuroscience, this lab experience will carry on to whatever lab I work on in medical school,” he says.

Saybolt is a member of the club tennis team and the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity. He is a certified personal responder and ambulance driver for Little Silver Medical Emergency Medical Services First Aid Club. He also volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club of Easton. He graduated from Redbank High School.

Categorized in: Academic News