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Marquis Scholar recognized for organic chemistry research

Biochemistry major and Marquis Scholar James Vasta ’10 (Ambler, Pa.) passionately pursues his interests. He recently poured himself into a competition having to do with one of his greatest loves, organic chemistry, and won a $1,000 scholarship from the Lehigh Valley Section of the American Chemical Society (LVACS).

The LVACS Organic Chemistry Scholarship Competition took place April 28 at Moravian College in Bethlehem. Competing students were required to take the ACS Organic Chemistry Examination, turn in a letter of recommendation from the student’s organic chemistry professor, and write an essay on a topic in organic chemistry.

Students were also required to attend a college affiliated with LVACS; major in chemistry, biochemistry, or chemical engineering; and currently be enrolled in an organic chemistry course at their institution.

Lafayette is one of 11 colleges and universities in the Lehigh Valley affiliated with LVACS. Vasta learned about the scholarship from William Miles, professor and head of chemistry, who instructed Vasta in Organic Chemistry II.

In his essay, “Making the Carbon-Carbon Bond: The Significance of Grignard Reagents in Organic Chemistry,” Vasta wrote about the importance of a group of molecules called the Grignard reagent, which, Vasta says, is vital to the synthesis of larger, more complex compounds, particularly alcohols.

According to Vasta, Grignard reagents are also significant because since Victor Grignard won the Nobel Prize in 1912 for discovering them, scientists still do not fully understand them, which makes for a fascinating area of research.

“When Grignard discovered these compounds, they were some of the first organo-metallic compounds ever found,” says Vasta. “They undergo a variety of synthetically useful reactions and are important industrially in the synthesis of Tamoxifen – a drug used to treat breast cancer – as well as flavor enhancers, perfumes, analgesics, and many other noteworthy compounds.”

During his organic chemistry course, Vasta, became intrigued by the Grignard reagent and decided that writing an essay on it would be a great way to learn more.

“I quickly discovered that Grignard reagents are not as simple and straight forward as I had perceived them to be, which certainly strengthened my interest and led me to a whole host of interesting texts and journal articles,” he says.

Vasta believes this scholarship and the rigors of the competition have contributed significantly to his future.

“Not only will [the scholarship’s] monetary value contribute to my education, but simply doing the research aided me in focusing my interests and potential career paths,” he says. “As of now, I can see myself working for a pharmaceutical company, or even doing research of some sort, but I do plan to attend either graduate school or perhaps medical school after Lafayette.”

This summer, Vasta is performing EXCEL research under the guidance of Joseph Sherma, Larkin Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, and Bernard Fried, Kreider Professor Emeritus of Biology.

“I am using an analytical chemistry technique called High Performance Thin Layer Chromatography to study mice that are infected with the parasitic flatworm Echinostoma Caproni,” Vasta explains.

These parasites, according to Vasta, are good models for studying other debilitating diseases, like Trematodiasis and Schistosomiasis, which commonly infect humans in developing countries. The researchers hope to identify biological markers for these infections that would aid in the development of a user-friendly, analytical test for diagnosing them in humans.

To do so, Vasta is “analyzing the neutral lipid profiles of the urine of the mice and looking for differences in the concentration of certain biological compounds between infected mice and uninfected controls.”

In addition to his studies, Vasta is an active member of Lafayette’s ACS student affiliates group, the co-founder and vice president of the Cinema in Society Interest Group, a Science Fest volunteer, an attendee of the Lafayette Leadership institute, and a member of the Gateway program. He plans to become a tutor in general and organic chemistry as well as general biology and marine biology next semester, play as many intramural sports as possible, and hopes to study abroad in Italy during his college career.

Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program 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.

Chosen from among Lafayette’s most promising applicants, Marquis Scholars like Vasta receive a special academic scholarship and distinctive educational experiences and benefits. This includes a three-week, Lafayette-funded course abroad or in the United States during January’s interim session between semesters or the summer break. Marquis scholars also participate in mentoring programs with Lafayette faculty and cultural activities in major cities and on campus.

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