In addition to the regular curricular offerings, there are many research opportunities available to students throughout the year; we feel strongly that exposure to scientific research is very important and highly complementary to the training that our students receive in the classroom. We encourage all students to find a way a take part in a research experience during their years at Williams. During the fall and spring semesters, as well as Winter Study, students can undertake projects in faculty labs for academic credit (either as independent study or senior honors projects, or as a 3-week Winter Study course). During the summer months, students can work in faculty labs, typically for 10 weeks at a time; funding for summer research positions is obtained through individual faculty grants, as well as departmental and divisional sources. Students of all years are encouraged to talk to different faculty members about their research interests. Chemistry students have worked on biology, physics, mathematics, environmental science, and geoscience research projects on campus, as well as off-campus projects throughout the world.
To learn more about faculty research opportunities for students, please visit our faculty’s individual profiles.
Patrick Barber, inorganic/materials chemist
Research interests in the Barber Group lie in the design, development, and application of functional materials made from lanthanide ion complexes for imaging in environmental and biological systems. The lanthanides have long been studied for their interesting luminescent and magnetic properties. Through the use of these well-known properties, lanthanide ion (Ln(III)) complexes are excellent choices for use as probes to monitor a system, living or non-living. Two current projects include 1) the design, preparation, and application of Ln(III) complexes as sensors for embedding or covalent linking to renewable biopolymers for quick, portable detection of environmental contaminants, and 2) the design, synthesis, and characterization of gemini surfactant-based sensitizers for highly luminescent Ln(III) complexes with improved cellular penetration. Students in my lab will be involved in every aspect of our research—from project development and the designing of new molecules to presentations and, ultimately, the publication of their results. Exposure to a variety of areas will be possible including 1) synthetic inorganic and organic chemistry for preparing Ln(III) complexes, 2) analytical chemistry and spectroscopy in the characterization of all new materials, 3) physical chemistry in the rationalization of the photophysical properties of the Ln(III) complexes, and 4) applied chemistry through the development of a biorenewable platform for the prepared molecular sensors. This interdisciplinary nature will allow for either broad or focused studies depending on the students’ interests and goals.
Dieter Bingemann, physical chemist
From windows to synthetic polymers, from fiber optics to sugar coatings on corn flakes, glasses are ubiquitous in our daily lives. With physical properties of a solid and microscopic structure of a liquid, glasses are neither; they evolve slowly over time. In the past few years the focus of research on these materials has gradually shifted from a macroscopic description of properties to their analysis on a molecular scale. One especially promising result explains their unusual properties as a consequence of a strong dependence of a molecule’s dynamics on the structure of its environment, a correlation often called “dynamic heterogeneity.” Our research pushes this molecular description of glass dynamics to its extreme: using single molecule spectroscopy to investigate glasses experimentally one molecule at a time along with molecular dynamics simulations on fast computers to study the theory of the glass transition at the same level of detail.
Jimmy Blair, organic/bioorganic chemist
We need new antibiotics. Emerging drug-resistant bacteria pose a serious threat to public health, and while medicinal chemists constantly battle to develop antibiotics directed against these resistant strains, they still largely target the same molecular machinery as existing therapies. Histidine kinases are particularly attractive, yet untapped targets for new antibiotic development because they play central—and often essential—roles in controlling bacterial physiology. My multidisciplinary chemical biology laboratory approaches antibiotic drug discovery by integrating organic chemistry, biochemistry, and bacterial cell biology. We endeavor to develop small molecules targeting histidine kinases using the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus as our development platform. Histidine kinase-mediated signaling pathways are well conserved across bacterial species and are essential for virulence in many pathogenic strains, suggesting that discoveries in Caulobacter will lead to new antibacterial strategies effective against a broad-spectrum of bacteria. We target Caulobacter’s essential histidine kinases to assess whether pharmacological inhibition of these pathways provides a new antibacterial mechanism.
Amy Gehring, biochemist
If you have smelled fresh dirt, you have already been introduced to bacteria of the genus Streptomyces. In addition to producing the characteristic odor of dirt, these common soil bacteria manufacture the majority of known antibiotics. These medicinally important compounds are produced during the course of the bacterium’s unusual and complicated life cycle that culminates in sporulation. Research in my lab involves understanding the regulation of this developmental process and concurrent antibiotic production in the model organism Streptomyces coelicolor. Beginning with mutant strains that are defective in certain aspects of development, we have identified genes and thereby proteins that are necessary to progress through the various stages of the bacterium’s life cycle. Current projects in the lab include (1) using proteomics approaches including 2D gel electrophoresis and MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry to characterize changes in the cell resulting from activity of a stress response sigma factor; (2) characterizing the activity of a potential transcription factor required for sporulation; and (3) assaying the effects of various mutations on antibiotic production.
Christopher Goh, inorganic chemist
Metal-based catalysis can be found in many crucial biochemical and chemical processes. Taking advantage of these catalytic reactions as starting points, our group aims to discover new catalysts or to improve the efficiency of existing systems. A research problem in my group starts with an exploration of the variable space of a catalytic system. We examine the factors that influence the performance and hypothesize strategies for improving the catalyst, and probe these ideas by modifying catalyst compositions. One current project involves the synthesis and application of copper based atom transfer radical polymerization (ATRP) catalysts. These catalysts provide the power to dictate the composition, molecular weight and molecular weight distribution of macromolecules, and to precisely control their architecture. Thus, such catalysts have a multitude of applications in designing new materials for packaging, automotive, and medical industries for example. A second project centers on the discovery of homogeneous iron catalysts for the oxidation of fatty acids and their derivatives. Fatty acids can be obtained from plant oils and represent a renewable resource for the polymer industry. The metal catalyzed oxidation of this class of compounds is of interest in the formation of resins, an industrially important class of compounds.
Sarah Goh, organic chemist
Our research investigates non-covalent assemblies based on biological system through: development of self-assembled hydrogels by integrating synthetic polymer and protein-mimetic components, resulting in materials with tunable properties and function; advancement of enzymatic polymerization methodologies for the preparation of functional polymers by exploring active site geometries through genetic engineering; and evaluation of protein- and polysaccharide-based platforms for the targeted placement of active nano-catalyst centers in order to control macroscale function and architecture of these assemblies.
Lawrence Kaplan, biochemist/forensic scientist
DNA is packaged in the cell nucleus by wrapping around basic proteins called histones. The histone/DNA complex is called chromatin. Most chromatin consists of histones H2A, H2B, H3, H4 and a linker histone H1. The erythrocytes in mammals do not have a nucleus and therefore have no net protein or DNA synthesis. Amphibians and avians do have a nucleus but the genetic apparatus is shutdown, presumably by the presence of the linker histone H5. We are studying the role that H5 plays in the control of replication and transcription by studying the relative binding affinity of H5 compared to H1. Thermal denaturation curves and isothermal titration calorimetry are the primary tools being used to study the binding affinity of the linker histones.
Charles Lovett, biochemist
DNA damage by agents in the environment poses a constant threat to the survival of all organisms. In order to maintain the integrity of their genetic material, cells respond to such damage by activating, or inducing, a large repertory of enzymes that repair DNA and otherwise provide for cellular survival. Exposure of bacteria to DNA damaging agents results in the induction of a diverse set of physiological responses, collectively called the SOS response, which include enhanced capacity for recombinational repair, enhanced capacity for excision repair, enhanced mutagenesis, prophage induction, and inhibition of cell division. The research in our laboratory focuses on the SOS response in the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, a close cousin of the anthrax bacterium. Using a genomic screen, coupled with biochemical studies and microarray analyses, we have identified about forty genes that comprise the B. subtilis SOS response. Using a combination of genetic, proteomic, and biochemical analyses we are trying to understand how the integrated activities of the SOS gene products provide for the cell’s response to DNA damage.
Enrique Peacock-López, physical chemist
A large number of biochemical systems show regulatory feedback mechanistic steps either at the cellular level, like in the HIV-Rev protein, or at the physiological level, like in the hypothalamous-pituitary-adrenal hormonal system. Our group has been studying the molecular basis of different chemical, biochemical and physiological mechanisms and has proposed several dynamic models to explain observed temporal and chaotic oscillation in the concentrations of relevant metabolites. We have concentrated most of our effort in understanding chemical self-replication, where several chemical systems have been designed experimentally. For example, oligonucleotides have been considered by von Kiedrowski’s, Orgel’s and Nicolau’s groups, and peptides have been studied by Gadhiri’s and Chmielewski’s groups. More recently Joyce’s group designed a self-replicating and a cross-catalytic self-replicating ribozymes, which may be better suited for Darwiniam evolution than the oligonucleotide or peptide systems. In the case of cross-catalytic mechanisms, we have considered the dynamics of competitive systems and mutualistic hypercycles. We also continue studying and modeling the transport of incompletely spliced mRNAs across the nuclear membrane, which is regulated by HIV-Rev protein, and we have studied the behavior of an insect-predator-ant system, and we want to develop mathematical models that we will allow us to improve our understanding of species competition and coexistence.
David Richardson, organic chemist
Nature is a superb organic chemist. While taking care of the day-to-day business of being alive, living systems deftly assemble organic molecules of incredible complexity and subtle beauty. Among other topics, my research involves synthesis, isolation and characterization of naturally-occurring substances, particularly those with interesting biological activity. Current areas of study involve antibiotic agents from Southeast Asian plants, allelopathic agents from local plants, the analysis of PCB contamination in the Hoosic River watershed, synthesis of selectively deuterated, low molecular weight fluorocarbons, and the analysis of heterocylic organic molecules by 15N-NMR spectroscopy.
Becky Taurog, biochemist
The extraordinary diversity of protein structures and activities provides much of the molecular basis for life. I am interested in gaining a new understanding of protein structure and mechanism by utilizing a combination of structural methods and biochemistry. My lab’s current projects focus on folic acid-dependent enzymes and their interactions with other proteins. In humans, the enzymes in the folic acid pathway are associated with a number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, neural tube defects (e.g., spina bifida) and mental illnesses. Our primary targets of study are two different enzymes that both catalyze the formation of the amino acid methionine. These proteins both undergo conformational changes during catalysis. My lab in interested in characterizing these structural changes by combining basic biochemical studies and site-directed mutagenesis with electron microscopy, EPR, and X-ray crystallography. We are also using electron microscopy to determine the structure of one of these enzymes (cobalamin-independent methionine synthase) in complex with the protein folding chaperone, GroEL. This is part of a broader project to understand the interactions between GroEL and substrates that are too large to fit inside the chaperone’s central cavity.
Anne Skinner, physical chemist
My lab works at the interface between chemistry and two other disciplines, geology and archaeology. One way to determine the age of materials is to look at the damage caused by radioisotopes in the material and its surroundings. The older the object, the more damage should be found. The extent of damage can be measured with electron spin resonance (ESR), a technique that looks at the unpaired electrons created when a stable bond is broken by radiation. Projects in the past few years have included determining Late Stone Age dates at Olduvai Gorge, clarifying the transition from Neanderthals to Homo sapiens in Central Europe, and discovering the use of fire in South Africa 1.5 million years ago. Current projects are taken from sites in India, Brazil, Africa, and Europe.
Thomas E. Smith, organic chemist
My research interests lie within the broad category of organic synthesis that impacts such areas as biology, pharmacology, materials science, and reaction mechanism. My current focus is on the development of new methods for increased efficiency in organic synthesis and their application to molecules of biological significance. Organotransition metal systems, in particular, are utilized extensively in this endeavor due to their versatile selectivity profiles and catalytic possibilities. In one project, we are exploring a general asymmetric synthesis of the kavalactones. These natural products are the biologically active constituents of kava root, which has been used ceremonially in South Pacific cultures for centuries and has attracted recent attention in the Western world as an “alternative” anti-anxiety remedy. We are also investigating the asymmetric total synthesis of the myxobacterial antibiotic, jerangolid D, wherein both the δ-lactone and cis-dihydropyran rings are assembled using an extension of the methods developed for the kavalactone syntheses. In another project we are probing the scope and limitations of a new method for the thermodynamic deprotonation of readily available heterocyclic systems, thus allowing for the assembly of more complex molecular architectures from simple building blocks. This technique was successfully applied to a novel synthesis of the antiviral marine natural product, hennoxazole A. Studies on other complex pyran-based anticancer natural products such as enigmazole A, tedanolide C, and aplyronine are currently underway.
Jay Thoman, physical chemist
Inter- and intramolecular forces help determine the shape and behavior of molecules. Using the gas-phase fire-suppressant molecules known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as model systems, my colleagues and I use laser spectroscopic techniques to probe the vibrational overtones of CH stretches and to learn about molecular structure and dynamics. We use ab initio computational chemistry to model these vibrations, and their impact on atmospheric chemistry. Working with Dave Richardson, we synthesize deuterated fluorocarbons; these isotopically substituted HFCs are used to test theories of hydrogen bonding and energy transfer. The local environment provides many chemical research opportunities. Using the resources of the Environmental Analysis Laboratory on campus, I have collaborated on projects including studies of: lead in urban soils, perchlorate ions in drinking water, PCBs in the Hoosic River, and heavy metals in fish taken from local ponds.