Scientific synergy

Reed McKinney, a junior biology and chemistry major from Brownstown, Ind., is getting hands-on experience doing research that could potentially make our technology faster and more efficient than ever.

Reed, along with Dr. Brad Neal of the Chemistry Department, is creating small molecules and studying their properties with the goal of eventually producing cheaper, more efficient components for electrical devices like cell phones, tablets, laptops, and anything else that runs on electricity.

“I am on the organic synthesis side of things,” Reed says. “We are synthesizing small molecules to act like electrical components.”

They work using benzene as a scaffold to try and make these connections more efficient than ever before. The result of this would be more energy-efficient electrical components and more powerful technology with even smaller devices. Just as the technology of the 1980s was grossly larger than ours today, this research could reduce the size of electronics even further.

The right connections

Reed said that he got involved with the research simply through interacting with Dr. Neal when he had him in class.

“I had Dr. Neal freshman year for general chemistry and took the advanced honors option,” Reed said. “Then I worked independently in the lab with my partner. We worked well and he asked us to do research. Dr. Neal wanted us to get started with student research.”

Thanks to University funding and a donation or two, Dr. Neal and his colleagues have obtained some sophisticated equipment. This means that the possibilities are bringing classroom lessons to life for a motivated and self-directed group of students.

“They’re teaching themselves,” Dr. Neal says. “We told them: Learn how the instrument works, learn how to acquire the data, learn how to interpret the data, and tell us an interesting story about what you’ve learned.”

Ready for the real world

A number of students submitted résumés and cover letters last spring when Neal posted a callout for CHEM 450, a class that enables students to conduct independent research projects under faculty guidance. About a dozen students meet each Friday afternoon to report on progress and share tips.

He has already been working on the project for nearly two years, and Reed wants to continue with his research, even though his future career goals are aimed at dental school. He believes the research experience will make him more competitive as a student.

“All of the professors are more than happy to help you, and you get to know the other students really well”

“We’re giving students that richer experience,” Dr. Neal says. “I’m seeing a lot of scientific inquiry that you just don’t see in the classroom. I’m also trying to help them develop their professional selves.”

It remains to be seen whether the undergraduate research in Lilly Science Hall will produce any landmark discoveries, but the process—including the all-important step of presenting one’s self and one’s work to others—will be invaluable to the students as they apply for graduate school or launch professional careers, Dr. Neal says. In essence, they are learning how to brand themselves as scientists, with specific research interests and hands-on proficiency.

“I knew as soon as I visited UIndy that I wanted to go here,” says Reed. “All of the professors are more than happy to help you, and you get to know the other people really well.

“Many of my friends are in the science department, and it’s great to know I can always have class with my friends.”

Scott Hall & Robert Hadley ’17