An article in the journal ChemComm by researchers in Dr. Pavel Anzenbacher’s lab has received international attention. The report, about a novel approach to detecting dangerous heavy metals in water sources, was a lead story in the journal last summer. Designated a “hot article,” it continues to be referenced by other sources including, recently, the Royal Society of Chemists, said Manuel Palacios, a fourth-year doctoral student in photochemical sciences from Venezuela who is the lead researcher on the project.
“The proverbial cherry on the cake was that the article was also featured on the journal’s cover,” Anzenbacher said.
“It’s had a lot of impact,” Palacios said. “The article’s reviewers felt it was very important, and its publication was expedited.” ChemComm specializes in high-quality research across the discipline.
Palacios, Anzenbacher and the rest of the sensor lab of the photochemical sciences team are pleased with the response to the collaborative work, they say. They are also proud of the participation of then-undergraduate Bethany Hausch, a chemistry major from Maumee, who spent the summer between her freshman and sophomore years in 2006 working in the lab laying the groundwork for the project. She is one of very few undergraduates to have had their name among the list of authors on a professionally published scientific article.
Hausch graduated from BGSU this month and will pursue a graduate degree in food science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she plans to research sensory evaluation, or consumers’ perception of foods.
The other authors of the article, “Hydroxyquinolines with Extended Fluorophores: Arrays for Turn-on and Ratiometric Sensing of Cations,” are Anzenbacher, Palacios and BGSU postdoctoral students Drs. Karolina Jursikova, Victor Montes, Zhuo Wang and Grigory Zyryanov.
Hausch’s participation was funded in part by a summer research grant from the former Office of Undergraduate Student Research; the project also received support from a Faculty Research Committee grant. “We’re thankful for the financial contributions from Bethany’s summer stipend and my Faculty Research Committee grant from BGSU,” Anzenbacher said. “The good people, offices and sources who helped are very much a part of the success.”
Creating ‘artificial tongues’
Palacios’s research involved finding an array of sensors that, “like artificial tongues,” could detect toxic heavy metals. The sensors had to first bind the metals and then become fluorescent—making them easy to recognize even by the naked eye when illuminated by black light.
The ultimate goal is to create a testing method that is simple to use, such as a dipstick analysis or chemical test similar to those used for swimming pools, Palacios said. Public health officials could use the system to test groundwater or food products such as bottled, enhanced waters; the method might also be used by doctors to detect phosphates in human blood, which are linked to cardiovascular disease. “These sensors have a lot of potential,” Anzenbacher said.
Getting to where the research is now has required tremendous time and effort. “I started the project in the first year of my Ph.D. but, unfortunately, I only have two hands,” Palacios said. “Bethany’s work was used a lot, and the insight we gained from what she did was very helpful. She was really committed and she’s good at it. She also has the patience.”
Hausch got hands-on experience in how science is conducted. “Things take a lot longer than you think they will,” she said, noting than an entire morning could be spent preparing solutions and making calculations. “I first conducted a literature review to see what metal cations—positively charged atoms in solutions—and what sensors had been reported by other researchers so far.” Then she began the long process of testing eight polymers—long chains of repeating units employed to help draw the cations in—to see which would work best with the sensors, a process fraught with difficulty as the sensors and polymers do not always behave as planned. “It took many tries to get the right combination,” she said.
“The process of applying sensor solution and then the cation solution to microscopic slides is very tedious,” she said. “The engineering part still needs to be developed before it can be used as simply as a garden-soil pH test or pool-testing kit.”
But there was also the anticipation of results and the rewards of creating something new. She worked with Anzenbacher and his team to create new sensors and test their response to the presence of heavy metals.
Hausch was invited to work in Anzenbacher’s lab when she took a freshman organic chemistry class with him. In the second semester of her freshman year, she changed her major to chemistry.
In addition to eventually having her name on the published article, “I got academic credit for my work in the lab,” she said. She also had the privilege of working with Anzenbacher, an internationally known photochemical scientist and Sloan Research Fellow, and his cutting-edge team.
“We are very proud of her,” Palacios said of Hausch, noting that the University of Illinois is a highly ranked school and “food science is akin to chemistry.” He pointed out that her experience in the BGSU lab should stand her in good stead. “You learn a skill, and working with real scientific problems and how to tackle them is very valuable experience,” he said.
“We pride ourselves here at BGSU in providing excellent undergraduate education in the classroom but also world-class research. The students here work in the team with the professors, postdoctoral associates, graduate students—the whole team, exactly as it will be when they make it to an international company or research institute. You learn more from more people. That is why it is so important to experience working in a team,” Anzenbacher said.
“Our lab is always happy to take undergraduates who are willing to do some hard work. They can knock on our door and maybe get a publication out of it,” he added.
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