Students conduct summer research to produce biorenewable chemicals

Nikhil Shah, junior in chemical engineering at Iowa State, wasn’t sure what to call his research when he began the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) with the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC). The end goal of his work, converting lignans into other chemicals, is a bit of an unknown because much of his experimentation is the first of its kind. Shah refers to his work as “open-ended chemistry,” and he went to work each day prepared for the unexpected, often finding new surprises and challenges.

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Nikhil Shah conducting experiments in the lab

Students were selected to participate in the program because of their interests and their strong academic qualifications, but the summer was still full of learning opportunities. Shah didn’t face these new experiences alone. He and 13 other REU participants—nine who lived together in Frederiksen Court and five who were off-site—met weekly to share stories and research progress with the group and Raj Raman, director of CBiRC’s university educational programs and professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering.

During one CBiRC meeting, Shah shared how an entire day of his research went wrong. Rather than become downtrodden, he made note to use the day as a lesson. “I didn’t find it too discouraging,” says Shah. “What I messed up is now so easy for me that I almost find it funny I could err in something so simple.”

The work participants did for CBiRC was far from simple. The center’s focus is on finding ways to integrate biological and chemical catalysis systems to produce biorenewable chemicals. Shah, and fellow REU participant Philip Pierce, chemical engineering student at Virginia Tech, worked on the phase of this research in which chemicals are converted into more useful substances.

Pierce worked with unsaturated molecules and used catalysts for reactions to turn alkenes to esters. His goal for the summer was to isolate catalysts that work best in the process in hopes researchers will continue to use the compounds as they explore synthetic materials.

Although all students selected for the REU complete their research for the center, not all worked on Iowa State’s campus. CBiRC is composed of multiple partners, including the University of Wisconsin, Madison and University of California, Irvine. Five students relocated to those universities to conduct research after a five-day orientation at Iowa State, and still kept in contact with Raman and the other students through weekly videoconferences.

Amanda Culp, junior in chemical engineering and economics at the University of Pennsylvania, spent her summer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “This REU has taught me that real-world research, although it is a lot of work, is exciting and innovative,” says Culp. “This experience has increased my desire to get involved with research and has inspired me to attend graduate school.”

All three students say their REU experiences have been valuable, and Pierce and Shah agree that one of the most important lessons learned is that research in a lab is worlds apart from classroom experiments. “In these labs, you’re making your own things and there is no predetermined start, end, or outcome,” says Pierce.

Shah acknowledges the learning curve, adding, “Sometimes it seems like I am spending a long time setting things up that someone may be able to do faster, but it’s kind of cool doing my own thing.”

Although the research is individual, the students at Iowa State spent time together nearly every day. The group even arranged a road-trip to Chicago for the 4th of July, to Taste of Chicago, the SHEDD Aquarium, Navy Pier, and to a fireworks display.

Students not only appreciated the connection with their peers, but with Raman. “He made us less uptight and definitely helped create the group dynamic,” says Pierce.

“We all like him, and he wasn’t just the program director, we’re friends,” says Shah. Raman was one person who strongly encouraged Shah to stay at Iowa State for the summer and act as an ambassador of sorts to other students coming from farther away. “I knew the program was well-respected, and after I interviewed with him, I was even more excited to stay,” says Shah.

All three students are glad they chose to learn with CBiRC for the summer.

“I would say definitely choose CBiRC again. With an REU, you get a taste of many types of research and the program coordinators work hard to create a fulfilling experience for the students,” says Shah.

Culp agrees, “This experience has exceeded my expectations. Not only did I learn more about biochemistry, but I have been able to use my scientific knowledge in real world applications.”