Chemistry Faculty Research Projects

Chemistry faculty also work closely with research projects in biology

Research in the Teaching of Chemistry and Biology

Chemistry faculty Steve Cessna, Tara Kishbaugh, and Matt Siderhurst, along with Biology faculty Doug Graber Neufeld, Psychology faculty Jeanne Horst, and Education faculty Lori Leaman are funded by a major NSF CCLI grant to promote the enhanced learning through authentic, relevant research experiences across the biology and chemistry curriculum. Through this project, the chemistry, biology, psychology, and educations departments are involved in a unique interdisciplinary project that seeks to promote deeper, more practical learning of higher order cognitive skills (HOCs), the nature of science (NOS), and oral and written scientific communication skills. Full description of project.

Tara Kishbaugh

Water quality monitoring in the local watershed related to bacterial contamination, run-off or hydrofracking

EMU is at the headwaters of the Blacks Run, a stream that runs through Harrisonburg. The Blacks Run is considered to be impaired by the VA Department of Environmental Quality due to over-sedimentation and elevated levels of bacteria. In collaboration with other volunteers in the area, students analyze the health of the stream using a variety of physical, chemical and biological indicators such as temperature, flow, nutrient levels (nitrates, phosphates, and others) and e coli.

Additionally, Dr. Doug Graber Neufeld and I are working with students to gather baseline water quality information related to pH, turbidity, stream flow, as well as barium and strontium levels in an area of northwest Rockingham County. There is the possibility that this region of the county would become the first area in Virginia in which hydrofracking occurs. Should hydrofracking occur, our watershed and drinking water data will give a baseline from which to compare post-hydrofracking samples, in order to assess the extent of any contaminant releases.

Assessing student familiarity with and understanding of green chemistry

The principles and practices of sustainability in chemistry have emerged in the past twenty or so years, yet this topic has become fairly well-represented in chemical education literature. A common pedagogical practice is to integrate a few ‘green’ chemistry experiments into introductory courses, such as general or organic chemistry; however, this approach often fails to assess whether students are developing a robust perspective on the complexity involved in ‘greening’ a chemical process. Surveys of students’ perception indicate that this is not a successful method by which to teach green chemistry. Currently a different approach is being investigated.

Improving students’ engagement with math coursework by adding contextual relevance to assignments

Students often struggle to apply content learned in one course to another. As the Foundations of Math course contains foundational information for STEM students and difficulty with math is one oft-cited reason for students to leave STEM fields, we would like to increase the chance that students will be able to generalize this content. Situation or context-based learning has been shown to improve practical, transferable understanding in a number of scientific fields (Brown et al., 1989; Lave and Wenger, 1991). Thus, we have edited the content in Math 101 to create contextualized assignments drawn from examples currently used in biology and chemistry courses. In the future we hope to build a ‘math when you need it’ resource as well as expand the contextualization beyond just biology and chemistry examples.

Stephen Cessna

Plant Stress Physiology and Cellular Biochemistry

Plants in nature are continuously subject to several environmental insults, including drought, heat, cold, toxic pollution, disease, and insects. While some plants have evolved the ability to specifically combat one or more of these stresses, (as cacti have special abilities to withstand drought), all plants have adaptive ability to tolerate most stresses (to varying degrees). This is achieved at the cellular level by the transcription of specific stress-activated genes.

My research project focuses on the roles of calcium and hydrogen peroxide in activating these stress-activated genetic programs. Students working on this project may have the opportunity to learn several different laboratory techniques including: greenhouse maintenance of unique plants, plant cell culture, luminometry, fluorimetry, fluorescence microscopy, and plant genetic manipulation.

Physical Biochemistry of Serum Albumins

Albumin, the most prominent protein in blood serum, is believed to transport fatty acids, drug compounds, vitamins and toxins through the blood stream. We use fluorescence spectroscopy to determine how well small molecules bind to serum albumin. The small molecules we are currently testing are the B vitamin folic acid, and an herbicide called 2,4-D. These studies have relevance to the fields of nutrition and toxicology.

Matthew Siderhurst

Insect Chemical Ecology

Chemical signals are among the most used information transfer sources in ecology and they can include pheromones (conspecific signaling), plant-herbivore interactions, and predator-prey interactions. While many of these chemical signals are of basic scientific interest, they are also increasingly important to developing ecologically rational pest control strategies, both as replacements for pesticides against established pests and to help mitigate the increasing threat of invasive species (damage ~$137 billion/annually). My research focuses on arthropod chemical ecology, applying the tools of organic chemistry to ecological interactions. Currently I am collaborating with colleagues in Hawaii on research involving attractants for tephritid fruit flies (direct costs to Hawaiian agriculture ~$15 million/annually, lost markets ~$300 million/annually) and the nettle moth, Darna pallivitta. I am in the process of initiating a research program in which I hope to include undergraduates with interests in chemical analysis and synthesis, and students with interests in ecology and/or organismal biology.