Student Spotlight
Feeling the chemistry

Working in the labs at UIndy has given junior Harleen Athwal a valuable opportunity not a lot of undergrads have: working with a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.

“I took the investigative lab and the Organic Chemistry lab as an honors course my sophomore year,” says Harleen, a chemistry major. “That gave me the opportunity to work with the NMR and learn extensively about the graduate-level lab techniques.”

Harleen says that explaining to people how the machine works can be a bit complex.

“Chemistry majors get it, but people outside the major—they’ve got a harder time,”  says Harleen, laughing.

A path to an Honors project?

Harleen is a member of UIndy’s Honors College, and her research with the NMR prompted a number of ideas for her upcoming Honors project. She’s decided to branch out on a project from research by biology professor Sandra Davis.

“Since I haven’t written my honors proposal yet,” Harleen says, “I’m not exactly sure yet how I will be using the NMR machine. There is a specific chemical that Dr. Davis and I are interested in studying. If time allows, I will be extracting that chemical out of flowers and analyzing NMR signals.”

Harleen credits UIndy’s size for the opportunities she’s enjoyed so far—the smaller class sizes and smaller campus generally. She says that some of her friends who go to larger schools have a harder time accessing technology like the NMR machine, if they get to use the machine at all, because there is such a high demand for it.

“At UIndy, I was able to get in the labs and get a hands-on experience I know I wouldn’t have gotten at a larger university,” Harleen says.

She plans to continue working with the machine and hopes to have some work published in a journal.

“My goal for the next five years is either graduate and go on to dentistry school or pursue a master’s in Organic Chemistry if my first option doesn’t work out.  Either way,” she says, “this is what I want to do.”

— Allison Gallagher ’14


The NMR is used to determine the physical and chemical properties of an atom or a molecule. There’s a strong magnet inside the NMR machine that lets the electromagnetic field of the atoms align with or against the magnet. A small sample of the compound is mixed in a deuterated solvent. The prepared mixture spins in the NMR and a short burst of radio waves goes through the sample. Each unique compound has a different set of signals, and these are recorded from the sample after the absorption of the waves. A spectrum is transmitted to the computer next to the NMR where it is translated, and the computer-translated data is then analyzed.