"Advanced projects like this include countless hours of student-faculty interaction and go above and beyond the undergraduate curriculum with big rewards."
Associate professor of chemistry
In a basement laboratory of the Robert L. Rooke Science Center sits a shiny metal cylinder that, including its base, stands about eight feet tall. Its size belies its power.
"This instrument generates a magnetic field about 250,000 times stronger than the earth's," says David Rovnyak, associate professor of chemistry.
In 2005, Rovnyak and a team of Bucknell faculty received a highly competitive National Science Foundation grant that made it possible for Bucknell to purchase the instrument - a 600 MHz NMR spectrometer (NMR).
"We wanted Bucknell's faculty and students to have access to the 600 MHz NMR technology because it is mission critical to almost any investigation in chemistry," he says. "Bucknell's faculty and students can use it to work on projects related to some of the nation's highest scientific priorities."
One of those priorities is to understand how micelles work. A class of electrically charged aggregates of molecules found in soaps and even in our bodies, micelles can bind oils and other small molecules. This property makes them prime candidates for pharmaceutical and environmental applications, says Rovnyak, but for 50 years scientists have struggled to understand an important class of micelles formed by bile molecules. Using NMR, Rovnyak and Timothy Strein, professor of chemistry, think they have begun to unravel the debate.
"There have been contradictory views among chemists," says Rovnyak. "The NMR data allowed us to observe the aggregates in new ways. We are finding that some of the contradictory views are actually both correct, like different sides of the same coin. By understanding micelles better, we hope such knowledge might improve their use to deliver drugs to cells or remediate oil spills."
Together, Rovnyak and Strein have included about 10 undergraduate researchers in the project. Several are co-authors in the first publication to emerge recently from this work, and many others have presented results at regional and national conferences. "Advanced projects like this include countless hours of student-faculty interaction and go above and beyond the undergraduate curriculum with big rewards," says Rovnyak. "Several of the students on this project have gone into top doctoral programs."
Updated Jan. 31, 2012