CLAS Acts, September 2015  

From the Dean's Desk

Frederick J. Antczak, CLAS Dean 

As you catch up with recent issues of our Unit Head and Weekly Mailing, you may be struck, as I am at how much is already going on.  Not only do we have the new Kindschi Hall of Science open, several changes to transport and parking in place, a Thursday night Football opener that will be a challenge for parking and for those students in the Marching Band with Thursday evening classes, adjustments to the definitions of online and hybrid classes as well as the Faculty Activity Plan (FAP) taking the place of what we used to call the workload plan and on an altered schedule.  Most of this is quite useful and positive, but it may take a moment to get our heads around it.

What is not new about this summer is your on-going commitment to your fields of expertise. That has been expressed through the far-reaching projects that take our faculty and students all over the world.  The media has been full of news of the discoveries on Elizabeth Arnold's archaeological dig in Israel.  Meanwhile Mark Luttenton has been exploring the bottom of the lake for, of all things, its cancer-fighting potential.  The summer scholars proved an articulate and inspiring group.  Articles in our community papers by members of our faculty raised the discourse on important issues like understanding the science on climate change. And our hearts were broken to learn of the sacrifice of a firefighter and NRM 2013 alumnus Richard Wheeler, lost to the August fires in the state of Washington.  The devotion and engagement with our challenging world by our CLAS community surpasses anything that can be captured in a mission statement and speaks more directly to the passion that drives our work. Not everyone hits the news with their work at any given moment. 

We should also honor the thousands of hours in archives, in labs, in the field, in the classroom, in the studio, in deep and project-shaping contemplation-and sometimes even in administrative offices-that lay the groundwork for advancing our knowledge, pushing out the boundaries of our humanity, helping our students find their path toward their own passionate contributions.

I had the honor of welcoming our newest faculty members at a dinner last month.  Even after a day of orientation, they had a sharp and ready-to-go look about them.  I suspect anyone who interviewed here in January or February is necessarily hardy, but seeing them with their families and mentors reminds me of the many hats we'll want them to wear and the amount of new information they are absorbing just now.  When you talk to them, make sure that you dial back the acronyms and share a few of your favorite GVSU resources (whether that takes the form of how to log into Barter Board or how to sign up for a massage).

As our thoughts turn to fall and all that will bring, have a look at the CLAS Happening poster in your hallways and our web calendar for everything from an intriguing upcoming Carey Memorial Lecture to the Paleo-Olympics, not to mention the Fall Arts Celebration,  Chuck Pazdernik giving a Hauenstein Center's Wheelhouse Talk,  and the start of ArtPrize (with many GVSU participants).  Encourage your students to get out amongst it-a sure cure for homesickness.  And speaking of fall challenges for new students, our Fall Breather will return (weekend of October 24-25) but it pays to make adjustments to the flow of their workload as soon as you can so that weekend can remain clear.  And all are invited to review and provide any last refinements of the CLAS Strategic Plan Draft.  You'll have online access soon and in the meantime can look at the overview in this document. I'm excited! Big things to tackle this year. Here's my wish that it prove a fulfilling and productive one, both for you and your students.

Of Coffee, Chemistry and Characters in Collaboration-a look at the work of Richard Lord

"Coffee," quips Richard Lord, computational chemist, "is the most dangerous chemical I use on a daily basis."  Richard is a recipient of the Distinguished Early-Career Scholar Award from the Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence (CSCE) at GVSU, but admits that he was not a star student in his lab courses as an undergrad, struggling at times with the fine motor skill techniques he was learning.  His self-effacing humor is a springboard for his real passion to help his collaborators make systems better, to find what is hard to find experimentally and get to that which reality doesn't conveniently provide.   To explain, he grabs a laminated periodic table and indicates the transitional metals in the middle, explaining the rules their behaviors tend to follow and behavioral similarities in nearby elements too rare to test at an industrial level.  "Less rare ones represent a better, less expensive opportunity," he explains.  "The trick is getting the first row metals to behave like their second and third row brethren." As he speaks, the periodic table starts to seem more like a cast of characters and less like an abstraction from physical objects.  The reactions of most interest to Richard currently are those that have potential to do what nature does through the complex machines of biology.  Can we create significantly smaller systems using those first row metals that might help us to reduce carbon dioxide or to make clean combustion by oxidizing water to become hydrogen and oxygen gas? But this is a long drama, and Richard explains that he thinks in the very long term about industrial applications of the theory he works on.  He is developing principles.  "We're not filing a patent any time soon; we're making tools for future practice."  The scenes playing out currently look a lot more like counting electrons and relating these to each other in the metals he is studying.  "Unpaired electrons allow for interesting reactions," Richard says.  But he cautions that this is a balance between cool chemistry and ripping the environment apart.   Lord is the recipient of a recent Cottrell College Science Award for his work in redox-induced electron transfer.  He explains: "Take, say, a nickel species and add an electron and test your predictions.  When you get unexpected results, you need to ask how to account for that, since it does not seem to make sense.  For instance, you add a single electron and multiple electrons rearrange in response.  That's exciting as a potential way to form new molecules; that drives us." This project is carried out at GVSU with undergraduate students.  Richard is clearly enthused by the diversity of his lab.  Sunny Haskins is a BMS senior and football player; Daniel Tjapkes is a sophomore in geochemistry.  "Computational chemistry can be done by these diverse students as the nature of the skills needed can be taught so long as the student brings creativity," he notes, and goes on to contrast this with research needing extensive experience with lab equipment.  Richard Lord is also excited about some other work he is doing such as a longer term collaboration with a professor at Wayne State, Stanislav Groysman with whom he works on small molecule activation projects.  This work has allowed him to work jointly with some students such as Groysman's synthetic chemistry graduate students.  He sees that in the future the students will be able to do predictive work to test the experiments.  A GV chemistry senior has already published a paper with Groysman's group.  Alyssa Cabelof worked between their labs and had the benefit of some Space Consortium funding.  Lord hopes additional students will be making this cross-over as time goes on.  He sees benefit in them getting a realistic R1 lab experience and encourages his students to seek these out.  He finds that it clarifies their goals-do they want to go to grad school or is industry a better path for them? A second collaboration is underway with Indiana University's organometallic chemist Ken Caulton.  His interest is in the metal carbon bond and he had some bonds he wanted to study that he can't work on experimentally in the lab.  He wanted to know about the behavior of electrons transferring between metal and ligand.  For instance, if N2 could be turned to ammonia (NH3) for use as fertilizer.  The goal is to create transformations under relatively mild conditions (lower energy and temperature) than would be typical.  "That would be a great outcome," Richard notes.  "We are trying to understand how to catalyze the process, so we run many simulations to try to approach a model." This sort of work takes multiple desktop computers.  Richard is part of the Midwest Undergraduate Computational Chemistry Consortium which meets online and in person a couple times of year at an R1 institution.  "We give back by letting their grad students talk  to faculty at predominantly undergraduate institutions and the R1 faculty talk to our undergrads.  Meanwhile, our undergraduates also get to talk to current graduate students to get their perspectives.  He estimates that 80% of the talks and posters are given by undergrads at these meetings.  Faculty also manage to provide each other with critiques of their work.   In addition to these productive external collaborations, Richard is involved in an internal collaboration with Assistant Professor Andrew Korich, an organic chemist interested in boron chemistry.  They met even before Richard was on contract and are now working on benzofurans.  Now alumna Samatha Ellis had a "cool unexpected reaction" and they did not know how it worked so Richard offered to have his lab look into it.  His talented student Talon Kosak needed a research project, received an S3 grant to study the benzofuran formation reaction.  They found an interesting reaction in a search of the literature that they couldn't replicate; the mechanism seemed wrong.  They went in search of the real mechanism.   This extended their lit search into areas they could not travel alone.  Don Anderson (German, and currently an interim Assistant Dean for CLAS) helped them translate German scientific literature from the 1930s that was relevant to their search.  Don enlisted student Jacob Dillon to assist in the translating.  As it turned out, the teams' predictions married up with the older experimental results that the translations brought to light. While this venture could be seen as a subplot to the original project, it was a productive one that resulted in a couple papers ready for submission this fall and a half-dozen students have been involved.  In ongoing work, Talon has been working on an S3 project with Andrew and confirmed the computational predictions.  This fall Richard Lord will be teaching CHM 116, lab and lecture for Principles of Chemistry 2 and no doubt drawing some new students into the productive drama of computational chemistry.