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When Samuel Morton, assistant professor of chemical engineering, needed a student to help with his research on ionic liquid toxicity, he turned to Maria Azimova ’06 (Tashkent, Uzbekistan).

“Synthesis [of the ionic liquids] was a big hurdle I had to jump, and Maria was instrumental in helping me figure out how to do this,” he says.

“We are synthesizing compounds and experimenting with different variables because they are very sensitive to temperature,” says Azimova, who is pursuing a B.S. degree in chemical engineering and an A.B. degree with a major in mathematics. “After synthesis, our research is an estimation of the toxicity of the compounds.”

They are trying to determine how ionic liquids affect the bacteria designed for wastewater treatment facilities, an area in which Morton is a pioneer.

Azimova has worked with Morton since last school year through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students assist faculty with research while earning a stipend. The program has helped make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate in EXCEL each year go on to share their work though articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

An ionic liquid is a compound that is salt-like in nature and has structural properties that tend to give it melting points under 100 degrees Celsius, according to Morton. Sometimes referred to as “room temperature ionic liquids” (most of the compounds Morton and Azimova have synthesized have melting points close to 25 degrees C), they are being used as replacements for traditional solvents.

“They don’t have [significant] vapor pressure, so they are non-volatile compounds,” says Azimova. “They make very useful organic solvents because you can do any reaction and use them as catalysts. Since they provide potentially great solvents, it’s very useful to know whether they’re toxic or not.”

“They provide us with some interesting properties,” explains Morton. “One is that they don’t evaporate; they won’t boil, they just decompose – they come apart before they turn into a vapor. Because they are able to do that and have a certain range in which they’ll function like that, they allow us to do some really interesting physical separations.”

“They are being used to replace the current solvents, which are volatile and have undesirable thermal properties – water boils at 100 degrees C and some other compounds used in solvents turn to vapor at 150 degrees C,” says Morton in comparing the advantages of ionic liquids to other solvents.

Though ionic liquids are roundly praised for their non-toxicity, few studies have been conducted on them.

“Because I do ‘green’ engineering, I feel ethically bound to determine as best I can the negative side effects of the compounds or technologies that I advocate,” says Morton.

In establishing the toxicity of the compounds they have created, Azimova is measuring the bioluminescence, or light produced by a chemical reaction within the bacteria.

“The bacteria we use to estimate the toxicity is bioluminescent,” she explains. “We put the bacteria with the ionic liquid in [the testing apparatus] which measures the light level that passes through the sample. The light level changes as the bacteria dies out, decreasing or increasing depending on the bacteria we are using.”

“We also measure the oxygen uptake rate of the bacteria (the rate at which oxygen is consumed in the reaction), which decreases as the bacteria dies out,” she adds.

It is an experience that has given Azimova a wide range of knowledge that goes beyond just knowing how different concentrations of bacteria affect ionic liquids.

“All of the work I’ve done while I have been here is going to help me because it’s real-life experience,” she says. “Things that Professor Morton showed me, and things I learned from this research, I would have never gotten in the classroom, even in the lab.”

“In the classroom lab you are provided with an experiment and the professor knows what you are going to get [for a result]. Here, you hope you’ll get the result you want, but you don’t know if you actually will. In the classroom and labs, you are told what to do. But here, Professor Morton has really supported and encouraged me to try things on my own,” she says.

There are many benefits the EXCEL program provides for Lafayette students, according to Morton, including an often-neglected aspect of scientific work – writing. Azimova is contributing to that aspect of the project as well.

“There’s a lot of work involved in that because learning to write scientifically is different than writing in composition class,” Morton says. “For research it’s how to get the maximum amount of information out in the least amount of words.”

“I stress to the students that it is excellent for them to learn how to write. If they learn how to write and they don’t find it a punishment, then they’re going to find success in an academic research, academic professor-type position because they’ll be able to do that all-important writing, not just experimental papers, not just research, but grants,” he notes.

Excel also gives valuable experience in laboratory methods, says Morton, including how to create a research project, develop experimental technique, and analyze data. “I remember listening to professors at the University of Tennessee talk about how long it takes to get grad students ready to do doctoral programs — a year, maybe a year-and-a-half,” says Morton. “This [lab training time] is something our students already have; they are well ahead of their peers when they reach grad school. Lafayette students know how to do the lab work, how to use a vast array of experimental tools.”

Azimova also helped Morton develop the methodology for the testing and has done her own literature search.

“I’ve kept my literature search to myself and I’ve tried to help her learn to do one,” says Morton. “It’s very important research material. A lot of people will just go into a lab and start doing chemistry because their boss has already done the literature search. But I want my students to understand where the item came from. She’s found some literature that I hadn’t found.”

Azimova says that it’s been challenging to develop new ideas when something doesn’t work out.

“I’m always thinking about how to improve what I am doing, trying to improve the experiments,” she says. “I have learned to do things in the lab on my own, to think independently and make my own decisions.”

Morton collaborates with the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory on his liquid separation technology research, and spent time with Azimova at the university conducting experiments in its laboratory.

Previously, Azimova collaborated as an EXCEL Scholar with Joshua Sanborn, assistant professor of history, on a project examining the history of Russia during World War I.

Azimova served as vice president of the Math Club and is a member of the student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Society of Woman Engineers. At the Honors Convocation last spring, she received the Professor James P. Crawford Prize in Mathematics, awarded to a student who has made a special contribution to the mathematics community at Lafayette by participating in and providing leadership for the cocurricular activities of the department.

Categorized in: Academic News