MC’s Chemistry Department Makes Headway in Scientific Research

-James Osborne, News Editor

What sorts of experiments are being done in the basement of Hederman?

One of the most historic departments on Mississippi College’s campus is the chemistry department, which has been a growing part of MC’s studies since 1894. The chemistry professors and students are constantly participating in research projects which could, over time, be of great benefit to society.

science-Alexa Zylstra

            Professor Trent Selby and his students are currently conducting experiments to find new compounds to make solar panels more efficient. Solar panels currently only use 10 percent of the light used to generate energy, but Selby hopes that through research, compounds will be found to use 50 to 60 percent of the light gathered by a solar panel.

“We synthesize new molecules that are potential light harvesting materials so they will absorb the energy from the light. These materials could then potentially be used in solar cells,” said Selby, who believes that solar energy is the best form of clean energy and the answer to the energy crisis. “Our main focus is just synthesizing the molecules. My students use what they learned in organic chemistry, and we pass the data to those who make solar cells.”

Before his students start their research, they are required to have finished organic chemistry and then they receive more training in the lab. “We are not trying to make new reactions, we are using old reactions, but our approach is to try to out design everyone else in the field. Not to find new reactions, but to create new molecules,” said Selby. His research students this semester are Alex Zelestra, Lauren Vickers, and Elliot Taylor.

David Magers is the chair of MC’s Academic Research Committee and has been doing research in the chemistry department the longest with the largest group of students. This chemistry research is not in the chemistry lab but in the computer lab.

“It’s computational research. It’s different than what people usually think about with chemistry. We’re not in the lab; we use computer software programs to run calculations to theoretically understand how molecules will behave under certain conditions,” said Amber Morales, a junior majoring in ACS Chemistry. There are nine undergraduate research students that help Magers and work on their own individual research.

“In theoretical chemistry research we are using the rules of quantum mechanics to mathematically model chemical systems on computers,” said Magers. Much research is done on computers due to things that could be dangerous or hard to get to. Magers and his team of students use fundamental research to look at many different mysteries in the science world.

“I tend to look at specific molecules, like why are some molecules stable and others are not, so that is what a lot of what our research seeks to answer—‘Why do molecules do what they do?’” said Magers. Fundamental research may not necessarily produce results in the near future, but it could connect with other fundamental research down the road, and that is how a lot of scientific discoveries are found.

“I would say that the main goal of undergraduate research is pedagogy at its best- teaching,” said Magers. “Undergraduate research allows you to put together pieces of different classes, and you have to synthesize all the data and see how it comes together. So the biggest benefit of undergraduate research in my opinion is it helps the students learn more and do better.” He also said that it helps the students network when they go to research conferences and find mentors.

Research is not required for all chemistry majors, but only about a third of the chemistry majors participate in one of the two research groups.

“Our mission is basically to help students with their goals and why they decided to major in chemistry. If they want to go into medical school, dental school, or to go on to grad school, we are here to help them with those goals,” said Clinton Bailey, chair of the chemistry department.

MC’s chemistry department has a long history. The department was broken off from the department of natural philosophy in 1894. The first head of the chemistry department was J.W. Provine, who later became president of the college and whom Provine chapel is named after. He was the first European-educated PhD in the state in any discipline. He was followed by A.E. Wood, whom the coliseum is named after and who was the second head of the chemistry department, as well as mayor of Clinton for many years. A lot of the other buildings on campus are named after chemists including Anderson Hall, Moody Adams field house, and Hannah Cafeteria.

Both Selby and Magers agree that the chemistry faculty and their relationship with the students makes the department stand out from other schools.

“We have a lot of fun together and we all work together toward our progress,” said Ben Peyton, a junior majoring in chemical physics. “We have the same interests so it’s easy to get along. I think I enjoy most having somewhere I can go anytime I want to.”


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