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CCRI Chemical Technology students expand studies with summer of research work 

Nov. 6, 2015

Photo of Chemical Technology students with Professor Wayne Suits. CCRI Chemical Technology students Andrea Villarroel (left), Julia Suits and Mannah Symbola presented their summer research work at the 8th annual Rhode Island Summer Undergraduate Research (SURF) Conference. With them is Professor Wayne Suits, who coordinates the Chemical Technology program.

At the 8th annual Rhode Island Summer Undergraduate Research (SURF) Conference at the University of Rhode Island, much was made about how the next generation of scientists is fearlessly paving the way for not only intellectual, but economic, development in our state.

“We live in a global economy where high wage jobs go to people who have high skills, particularly technical skills,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo. “As far as I can tell, there’s practically a limitless demand by employers for talented technologists of all kinds. … So you are what we need. The only way we are going to get the Rhode Island economy sparked again is if young entrepreneurial technical talent commits themselves to this economy,”

By the looks of the more than 400 attendees excitedly gathering around posters the undergraduate research fellows prepared, this wave of scientific energy is far more than hypothetical. This is no surprise for CCRI Dean of Business, Science, Technology, and Math Peter Woodberry and Professor Wayne Suits, Chemical Technology coordinator, who proudly surveyed the work four students (and one alumnus) from CCRI’s Chemical Technology program presented that day.

“This is wonderful,” said Woodberry about both the conference and the program, which provides funded, summer-long research opportunities for undergraduates to work on in-depth research projects in different disciplines with mentors from area colleges. “This is all about getting a mixture of students across all eight colleges in Rhode Island working with the best and brightest faculty researchers and having the chance to be exposed to cutting-edge science and STEM career-track opportunities.”

Suits said that exposing chemical technology students to such interesting research this early draws them in. “As a result of that, they either continue with their academics and end up in graduate programs, or they enter the chemical process industry doing really exciting stuff and possibly continue with their education on a part-time basis. The important point here is that the program provides its graduates with options.”

The projects students Julia Suits, Rolando Rios, Mannah Symbola, and Andrea Villarroel, along with graduate John Rhoat, presented fell under the banner of chemistry for the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (RI-INBRE). They were varied, representing the promising scope of possibilities for each student’s future. This was the second SURF conference for Rhoat, who last year worked on the synthesis of a xenon caged organic molecule to enhance the imaging of tumors, advanced that work this year while also completing the synthesis of a potential Alzheimer’s drug. Julia Suits made her second appearance at the conference this year as well. Last year, she studied drug overdose reversal with naloxone; this year she submitted a project titled Development of an Analytical Method for Determination of Metformin in Plasma.

Working under researcher Fatemeh Akhlagi of URI’s College of Pharmacy, her aim was to use high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to create a process to measure metformin hydrochloride, which is commonly used to regulate blood glucose levels in patients with Type 2 diabetes. There are methods out there, but the team was looking to refine a simpler process. However, as scientists often experience, she found that her project had other plans for her.

“My HPLC kept breaking down,” she said, “And so I got as far as measuring a metformin concentration and making an assay method built on that, but someone is going to have to [take that a step further].”

While the experience didn’t go precisely as planned, she found it to be of great value in preparation for her studies and career. She plans to transfer to URI for her bachelor’s degree in biology and hopes to move on to work in a biotech laboratory.  “I learned that research is always crazy,” she said. “There’s always something that is going to go wrong and you have to be prepared for that. The RI-INBRE lab helped me so much during my research, and they were always there and very supportive.”

Rios found himself out of his comfort zone as well, and said his experience was all the better for it. Though chemical technology is his wheelhouse, starting classes in 2014 after being laid off from a group home, he was assigned to a team from the Wearable Biosensing Lab, headed by Kunal Mankodiya of URI, to develop a no-invasive transdermal alcohol sensor. The applications of such a device were many, said Rios, but focused largely on preventing alcohol-related loss of life or health problems. The device would transmit the data wirelessly to health care providers and family members using Android technology, such as is used with smartphones.

“I helped to research all the manners and ways that this would be possible,” he said. “It was a lot of reading scholarly articles, checking online and looking at existing technology.”

Apart from what he learned on his project, Rios said he particularly appreciated the guest speakers and field trips that the RI-INBRE program arranged, exposing him and the other students to professionals in research and commercial settings. “I feel very hopeful; the field I’m in is very promising, and there’s a lot of opportunity here,” said Rios, who is slated to graduate from the Chemical Technology program next May.

Villarroel, a recent Rhode Island transplant from Bolivia, will graduate alongside Rios. Her interest has always been in chemistry, she said, and was able to enroll in the Chemical Technology program after successfully completing noncredit ESL classes at the college upon her emigration in 2009. She shared many of her classmates’ sentiments about this first in-depth experience in the lab. “This is my first time doing a poster and presenting, so this is a really exciting moment for me,” she said.

Villarroel worked under Geoffrey D. Bothun of URI and presented a project called Lipid-Coated Magnetic Nanoparticles (L-MNPS) for Gene Therapy and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. She said that the aim of the project was to research more effective delivery and imaging in the treatment of certain cancers. Before this summer’s project, Villarroel, who works part time at T.F. Greene Airport in passenger assistance, wasn’t sure where her interest in chemistry might lie. But now, she said, she has a clear idea of what the future might look like.

“I really want to be involved in nanotechnology and using nanoparticles to do drug delivery for cancer treatment,” she said. “It makes me happy to see that in the future we can maybe save lives using these treatments and technology.”

Like Villarroel, Sambolah, originally from Liberia, has always been interested in chemistry. He recalled working in his mother’s restaurant, mixing ingredients, and thinking that the alchemy of cooking had an obvious corollary in the laboratory. But it wasn’t until 2013, after retiring from a career as a CNC machine operator and after his son was grown, that Sambolah could begin anew.

“It’s long overdue, but as I say to myself, ‘Mannah, you’re doing it now; put your best into it,’” he said.

Sambolah’s project, Molecular Imaging Using Mass Spectrometry and Desorption Electrospray Ionization (DESI), was supervised by Al Bach at URI. Sambolah said he found the technology he used – the instrument called DESI – was challenging, particularly because nobody in the lab had used it before. But availing himself of the resources of the RI-INBRE program and the mentors around him, he was able to see an imaging analysis of a rhodamine dye. Satisfied with his work, Sambolah said he looked forward to the future, when he can both continue his studies and find work in a laboratory.

“The SURF program was good in that it enabled me to learn something I’ve never seen before,” he said. “I just saw it as a challenge and put my mind to it.”

Sambolah and his classmates didn’t have to look far to see a glimpse of what their future could offer. Just down the hall was CCRI Chemical Technology graduate John Rhoat ’13, who is now a chemical engineering major at URI. This year, Rhoat worked with URI mentor and RI-INBRE Training Core Coordinator Brenton DeBoef, to complete an exciting collaboration that has been taking place between CCRI and URI, all thanks to the SURF program.

DeBoef said Wayne Suits and his students worked to synthesize molecules that would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive – think $12,000 per gram – for an Alzheimer’s drug. Last year, DeBoef worked with CCRI student Joelle Bitar on formalizing the first steps of the synthesis, and this year with the help of Rhoat, was able to figure out the final step. DeBoef said that if all goes according to plan, doctors at Rhode Island Hospital and animal scientists at the URI College of Pharmacy will be able to move the drug into animal studies in the fall.

“These are some of the wonderful partnerships that develop from programs like this,” said Suits.

DeBoef described Rhoat as one of the best undergraduate researchers he has ever come across, and Rhoat credits his time at CCRI with helping him find an affordable entrée into the sciences. “I like learning and gaining new knowledge,” he said. “And I really like doing the research. At first I was hesitant to get into the science fields because everyone said they were so hard, but I kind of matured and realized that if you do something you like, even if it’s hard, then you can achieve your goals.”

“We have been very pleased with the CCRI students that have participated in the INBRE-SURF program,” said DeBoef. “It appears that the CCRI students that have participated in the INBRE-SURF programs through the years have been particularly well-suited to this kind of work. We hope that the exposure to cutting-edge research through the SURF program will inspire these students to not just pursue jobs in the STEM fields, but to become career scientists who are innovating new technologies and solving important scientific programs.”

Suits said Rhoat and Bitar are prime examples of the options CCRI’s Chemical Technology program presents: “John and Joelle are perfect examples of the flexibility afforded by the degree in Chemical Technology,” he explained. “While John chose to transfer to URI to complete his degree, Joelle landed a great job with Teknor Apex, an international polymer company based in Rhode Island. As her employer has tuition reimbursement as part of its benefits package, Joelle plans to pursue her bachelor’s degree in polymer technology part time at the University of Massachusetts.” 

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Last Updated: 8/25/16