Saturday, August 13, 2016

 Researching Nitrogen and Sulfur in Natural Organic Materials

When you’re from the northeast, it’s easy to forget that other less-populated areas of the country exist. This summer, I had the opportunity to explore the midwest, thanks to a National Science Foundation-funded research program for undergraduates. I spent the summer at South Dakota State University researching what appears to just be dirt, but to an environmental chemist, this project has much more significance. Five undergraduate chemistry majors from all over the country (Nebraska, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, California, and Oregon, to be exact) were selected to participate in this program. We were each paired up with a faculty mentor at SDSU and placed in a university dorm for the summer. During our first weekend, we took a trip out to Pierre (pronounced “Pier” by the locals) for our kick-off meeting. This drive took us 3 hours on a straight, flat highway with NO TRAFFIC, which is very different from what I’m used to back home!

After this meeting, we really started to become invested in our individual projects. We were all working on something relating to green chemistry, which basically looks for more environmentally-friendly methods to perform reactions and create materials. My project involves extracting organic content from soils to be analyzed for nitrogen and sulfur. We are interested in this because if there were an excess of nitrogen or sulfur in the environment, it could cause disruption of the carbon cycle and lead to degradation of ecosystems, including water contamination.

My extractions looked like this. As the distillation progressed, the color of the extract would change from clear to orange to brown as the concentration increased. After this point, I fractionated my samples again so they were able to be analyzed for nitrogen and sulfur. It doesn’t sound like this would take a long time, but it actually took me about five weeks of work to get to this point!

Throughout the summer, I took some time to visit the classic South Dakota tourist attractions with the other students. We went to the Corn Palace (the outside is decorated entirely with corn), the Badlands, and Mt. Rushmore over a few weekends. We also went to the Omaha Zoo in Nebraska and the Mall of America in Minnesota. You never really appreciate having car until you live in the midwest and realize the closest civilization is about 3 hours away! Although there isn’t much around here, it’s really a beautiful place to live.

Our final presentation was a poster session in Pierre, South Dakota. We each created a poster about our projects and presented at a symposium for all research students in the state on August 1st. The presentation went very well! I met a lot of really great people and learned more about the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which I plan to apply for this fall.

Now that the summer is winding down and my time at SDSU is coming to an end, I am cleaning up my area in the lab, running some final samples, and preparing to travel back to Bloomsburg. I’ve started writing up my research to send out to a journal for publication! Although I have participated in research before with URSCA at BU and in another program at Old Dominion University, this project really confirmed for me that I want to pursue an advanced degree in environmental chemistry. The chemistry professors I have worked with at BU have really prepared me to take this next step in my career, and I’m very excited to see what comes next!

Shelby Coleman is a senior biochemistry major from Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.

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