Community College of Rhode Island Professor Wayne Suits uses the caffeine levels in a cup of coffee, the iron content of prenatal vitamins and the chemical composition of popular cosmetics as teaching tools in his chemical technology labs.
The approach shows students chemistry in practice. “Using items that students recognize allows us to make that connection and to include that context in our instruction,” he said.
Now, Suits is harnessing the talent of CCRI students to help synthesize a material that has the potential to reverse something that millions are already familiar with: Alzheimer’s disease.
The groundbreaking work has partnered CCRI with the University of Rhode Island and Jackson Laboratories, a Maine research laboratory, to create and test PS 48, a material that has shown promise in reversing Alzheimer’s disease during the in vitro testing phase.
CCRI’s contributions are a reflection of Suits’ belief that undergraduate chemistry programs should support research and feature laboratory work. “CCRI’s Chemical Technology program is the only one of its kind in New England,” Suits said. “We want our students in the lab from day one, working with chemical instrumentation so they are comfortable working in a real lab setting by the time they graduate.”
CCRI’s involvement in Alzheimer’s research began in 2014, when two CCRI students worked with URI researchers to synthesize PS 48 as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. Suits adapted the project into a laboratory module that could be used in the curriculum.
Chemical technology IV students synthesize PS 48 as part of their capstone coursework. The material is analyzed for purity and chemical composition at URI and sent to Jackson Laboratories, where researchers test it on transgenic mice who have been engineered to have Alzheimer’s.
Since the project began, CCRI students have synthesized more than 10 grams of the material, which costs about $12,000 per gram on the commercial market. By donating the material to Jackson Laboratories, CCRI is helping to slash the costs of conducting the expensive – and important – research.
“This is a real-world application for our students, and you can see in their response that it has changed the game for them,” Suits said. “For our graduates to have this kind of work on their résumé when they graduate is unprecedented.”
Brenton DeBoef, an associate professor of chemistry at URI who has overseen student research through the SURF program, said CCRI students have performed well in the program.
“I attribute this to the lab-intensive focus of the Chem Tech curriculum,” DeBoef wrote in a 2017 letter in support of CCRI’s work on the project. “Compared to their peers at four-year colleges, Chem Tech [students] have logged more hours in the lab by the time they participate in our research program, so they are able to hit the ground running. I think those of us who work in chemistry departments at four-year colleges could learn a lot from the Chem Tech program.”
CCRI’s Chemical Technology program was founded in the late 1960s and provides two tracks – a certificate and the transferable Associate in Applied Science degree – that will prepare students for work as chemical technicians in a wildly diverse field that includes everything from quality control to research and development. The program has a strong track record of placing graduates into jobs, with recent graduates finding work in area labs at Teknor Apex, Waters Corp. and Denison Pharmaceuticals.