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Department designs unique laboratory curriculums focusing on important research

Analytical lab, chemical biology lab, and polymer lab courses engage students in real-world health, environmental, and energy issues, and prepare them for research realities.

Teaching Assistant Erin Duffy helps Henok Yared and Yuting Qiu with their analytical laboratory experiment trying to determine the concentration of citric acid in soda. On the front page, Elena Werst and Dan Nguyen use gel electrophoresis to look at two different proteins. 

The Department of Chemistry has a number of unique laboratory experiences for its chemistry majors and graduate students, including its analytical lab, chemical biology lab, and polymer lab.

Analytical Laboratory

For the department’s analytical chemistry program, Professor Nicholas Frost leads students in problem-based laboratories focused on real-world applications. Students design all of their own analytical methods to answer the big picture analytical problems that are given to them over the course of two lab periods. Through being able to put their own plans and ideas into action, students are learning how to properly design an analytical method. They can see firsthand what happens if part of their method wasn’t designed well. During their second lab period, students then have an opportunity to reconsider their plan and learn from what they discovered in their first lab period. They also learn how to perform appropriate statistical analysis of experimental data to reach big picture conclusions, and how to think critically about their methods based on their findings.

Students focus on real-world issues and questions such as the analysis and treatment of wastewater in the manufacturing of semiconductors; the analysis of pharmaceutical components in a new-to-market nasal spray; and the analysis of caffeine and theobromine in the manufacturing of dark chocolate.

“Students, in general, are initially unsure of how to approach a lab where they have so much freedom,” said Frost. “But, as the semester progresses, it is clear that students are growing as chemists to a much greater extent than in the past with the old procedure-based curriculum.”

Chemical Biology Laboratory

Professor Erin Carlson, who has expertise in organic synthesis, mass spectrometry and other methods critical for mapping biological interactions, was asked to develop a chemical biology laboratory course—the first of its kind for the Department of Chemistry. With few examples of such courses in the nation, she spent about nine months putting together the curriculum from scratch when she first joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota less than two years ago. The goal of the course is to expose students to the application of modern chemical concepts and techniques to biological problems.

One of the components of the chemical biology lab is the study of a protein that is responsible for the resistance of many pathogens to current antibiotics. Students test different drugs on this protein to see if they might be effective for the treatment of resistant organisms. Students also learn about protein purification and crystallization, which is critical for understanding the structure of a protein and, thus, potentially designing new therapeutic agents. Course participants have the opportunity to use cutting edge instrumentation, including a microplate reader, a high performance liquid chromatography apparatus, and a fluorescence microscope, which enables them to see the protein crystals that they grow and cancer cells that they examine in another experiment.

Teaching assistants Lee Godsey, Elyse Krautkramer, Matt Styles, and Peter Ycas had a major role in development of the experiments. They helped Carlson research and test protocols to ensure that those experiments worked well and illustrated the important concepts being studied.

“The main goal is to expose students to modern biologically-oriented research that wasn’t previously in our curriculum,” said Carlson. Another goal is for students to understand how chemistry and biology are related, and why that interdisciplinary focus is important to the study of human biology and therapeutic development.

The course was instantly popular, exceeding capacity for three sections when it was first offered last spring. Even with the addition of another section, there was still a waiting list.

“This is a great opportunity for our students, and it is pretty unique,” said Carlson. The enrollment interest illustrates that it was wanted and needed.

Like many faculty members in the Department of Chemistry, Carlson strongly believes that interdisciplinary science is important, and it is critical for students interested in research to be exposed to the fields that bridge the traditional scientific disciplines.

“We have multi-disciplinary experiences for students that are not found anywhere else,” she said. “We are pushing forward with innovative learning opportunities for students, and our undergraduates are benefitting from those experiences.”

Polymer Laboratory

The Department of Chemistry has had a polymer laboratory for a number of years, with students taking the polymer synthesis course the semester before. Enrollment demand for the laboratory has increased significantly the past few years. Professors Marc Hillmyer, Theresa Reineke, and T. Andrew Taton have refined the curriculum for the laboratory, and Reineke has taught the lab for the past three years.

The purpose of the polymer lab is to teach graduate students how to synthesize and characterize numerous polymeric materials that are currently used and applied in many of our everyday products. They learn why polymers impart special physical and chemical properties and perform a variety of polymerization routes/mechanisms. For example, the students learn free radical, anionic, reversible addition fragmentation chain transfer polymerization (RAFT), ring opening polymerization, microemulsion polymerization, and thermosetting. The students also learn how to characterize the chemical structure, molecular weight, assembly, thermal, mechanical, optical, and shape memory properties.

The Department of Chemistry has a world-renowned polymer program, and teaching this polymer lab further strengthens the curricula at the undergraduate level. This course is not common in a chemistry department curriculum.

“The polymer industry is one of the largest employers of chemistry graduates,” said Reineke. “We teach the students most of the commonly applied polymerization routes and characterization techniques that are used both in industry and for research purposes. We are, thus, preparing our graduates for direct employment in the large range of industries impacted by polymer chemistry.”