Science departments sizzle with summer research

July 28, 2009

For some, the summer is a time to kick back and relax. But the Biology, Chemistry and Physics departments at McDaniel College are buzzing with research activity.

Alongside Professor Bill Pagonis, six Physics majors are investigating the optical properties of several types of materials that are used in dating archaeological and geological samples.

The John Desmond Kopp Professorship in the Physics department provides summer research stipends and room and board for the following students: Carly Weil and Andrea Mills, who are studying the optical properties of feldspars; Dan Crutchfield and John Sullivan, who are studying the optical properties of quartz; and John Maddrey and Ben Sapp, who are studying the optical properties of aluminum oxide.

Quartz and feldspars are geological materials that are commonly found in archaeological pottery and in many types of geological formations. Another material being studied by our students is aluminum oxide, which is used for measuring radiation doses for workers working with radioactive materials.

“The study of the properties of these materials is important because geologists and archaeologists are always trying to find better methods for determining the age of geological formations and of human artifacts,” Pagonis said.

The Kopp Professorship provides substantially for the funding of a faculty position and supports programs and initiatives in the relevant department.

Liana Fly ’10 is in the lab five days a week working with Melanie Nilsson, associate professor of Chemistry, in the quest to develop ways to use amyloid fibrils – which are highly ordered protein aggregates known to contribute to the pathology of a variety of genetic and aging-associated diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cataracts.

“Our research this summer is focused on using insulin, a protein known to readily form amyloid fibrils under simple laboratory conditions, to determine 1) if insulin derivatives, specifically insulin-biotin, can be used to make nanowires and 2) if microwaves could be used to generate amyloid fibrils from insulin,” said Nilsson, who has spent the past 14 years researching amyloid fibrils. Nanowires are ultra thin strands that are a nanometer wide. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter – an average page in a book is 100,000 nanometers thick and a fine human hair is about 10,000 nanometers wide, according to Northwestern University’s Discover Nano Website.

“We are interested in developing ways to exploit amyloid fibrils for useful applications, for example, to be used as nanowires,” Nilsson added. “We are also interested in trying to make fibrils from biotinylated insulin as this would give us an easy mechanism to coat the fibrils in gold to promote conductivity. We could also use the biotin to attach other groups such as antibodies or fluorophores, which would give the fibrils different functions.”

Peter Craig, associate professor of Chemistry, is working with four recent graduates – Gregory Trzcinski, Teresa Tilyou, Thao Tran, and Kevin Bowman – who have returned to wrap up research projects begun during the school year.

“Greg, Thao, and Teresa were super keen to come back to address some questions raised during the senior seminar process,” Craig said. “Greg and Thao are now beginning graduate school at UMBC, and Teresa will be at Vanderbilt in the fall. Kevin just graduated with an [Environmental Policy and Science] major, but will be returning in the fall to complete a Chemistry major.”

Craig’s research students are working on synthesizing and testing agents that may be used to remove toxic heavy metals from the environment and to treat people and animals poisoned by the contaminants. Heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and uranium can get into the environment through the improper disposal or burning of cigarettes, computers, televisions, cell phones, coal and compact fluorescent light bulbs, according to Craig.