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Feb. 26, 2013

Community of Scholars

Collaboration by two Trinity University chemists results in research grant

Collaborations by two Trinity University chemists results in research grant

SAN ANTONIO - Trinity University senior Luke Tibbitts wanted to play soccer in college, but he also knew he wanted a top-notch education. Now a biochemistry major with hopes of becoming a dentist, he says he knew Trinity was the perfect school for combining athletics with classroom rigor.

He learned about Trinity through his sister, Jessica Tibbitts Unruh '06, who earned a biology degree and was on Trinity's swimming team, went on to graduate school, and is currently practicing optometry in Hesston, Kan. To fulfill his dream, Tibbitts will enter the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio's dental school after he graduates in May.

At Trinity, Tibbitts is proud to note that the men's soccer team won the conference title three of the four years in which he played, made two Sweet 16 appearances, and amassed a record of 67 wins, eight losses, and nine ties.

The Victoria, Texas, native also found a research home with two faculty members who are quite skilled in the area of successful science collaborations. Chemistry professors Bert Chandler and Chris Pursell say their newest direction in developing new methods for understanding nanoparticle chemistry and catalysis reflects a community of science scholars at Trinity where interdisciplinary work is becoming standard.

During multiple summer research programs, Chandler and Pursell said they developed a project for Tibbitts, adding that his work was central to a proposal for a $350,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that will continue after he graduates and benefit the next class of student researchers.

Tibbitts, who is using the catalysis of organic reactions to measure the electronic effects that various metal oxide supports induce on gold nanoparticles, plans to complete his project this semester in preparation for submitting a paper about it to an academic journal. He said working with both professors has been invaluable.

While visiting chemistry students at another university, Tibbitts discovered that they work primarily with graduate or post-doctoral students.  "But I report to Dr. Chandler every day. He might suggest another way to go or something else to try, but I feel like the project is more my own," Tibbitts said. "I'm not just a lab monkey trying to repeat trials."

He said the professors would provide guidance, but added, "You have to try to figure it out. Day in and day out, I'm working on something I enjoy. It's much better to work with a professor."

Chandler and Pursell have been working together for more than five years. "We have built on each other's strengths," said Pursell, who specializes in physical chemistry.

Chandler, whose fields are inorganic chemistry and heterogeneous catalysis, works with tiny gold particles to understand how their chemistry can be used to catalyze chemical reactions.    Pursell is a physical chemist and spectroscopist who has studied atmospheric chemistry on ice surfaces while at Trinity. 

Also collaborating on the NSF grant is Robert M. Rioux,  a chemical engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University, who will conduct additional experiments and provide measurements with equipment Trinity doesn't have.  This collaboration between chemists and engineers with very different backgrounds is the type of interdisciplinary research that students at Trinity can become involved in.

Pursell said the group is developing new experimental techniques to investigate metal nanoparticles, as well as new ways to analyze kinetic and spectroscopic data. The grant will support two students for the next three summers, for a total of six students who will continue the work in catalysis, along with a post-doctoral researcher.

Their work could ultimately have industrial applications for technologies utilizing natural gas for energy and chemicals, converting biomass to transportation fuels, and fuel cells.

"I can see the potential for catalysts developing in the next few years that would be of interest to industry," Chandler said.

Pursell added, "This is fundamental science, not applied science, to understand catalysis. In the process, we have discovered new and exciting things."

-- Susie P. Gonzalez