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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Chemistry professor Mark Turnbull and his students create new compounds in order to study complex magnetic properties. Dr. Turnbull also sponsors students, like chemistry minor Lesley Mathews, who want to pursue internships in the local area.

Meet the researchers: "It's all fun!"

Interview with Professor Mark Turnbull
In a recent interview, chemist Mark Turnbull discussed his enthusiasm for designing new materials, collaboration in the sciences, and the use of research as a teaching tool:

How did you become interested in chemistry?

I was always interested in natural science, an interest fed by the Boy Scouts! In high school I had the good fortune to go to a school with a very strong science department and an active interest in teaching. The school had both a Ph.D. chemist and Ph.D. physicist on the faculty. While there I had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant and to teach sections of classes during my senior year. I think that was when I decided that teaching was my major interest and that chemistry was my field, both because of an aptitude for the chemistry, and a weak stomach, which caused some biology problems!

What is chemistry?

The short answer is that chemistry is the study of the structure and properties of matter, generally, but not always, limited to inanimate matter. If you start dealing with larger molecules and organisms, then you get into biochemistry, eventually molecular biology and then straight biology. If you start going smaller than molecules, atoms or the subatomic structures, then you start getting into physics. If it's really big, it's more biology, if it's really small, it's more physics, and the intermediate scale tends to be where the chemists do most of their work. We like to describe ourselves as the central science!

What are your research interests?

My general field is in chemical synthesis. As long as I'm gluing things together, I'm not really picky about what they are! I enjoy designing new materials and then trying to synthesize those substances.

What do you mean by synthesize?

Preparing new materials from other substances so that the chemical that we are actually trying to make is something that is not known. That to me has always been the most fun, when you realize that the flask you have in your hand contains the world's supply of a substance that nobody's ever made before. It could be utterly useless, but it's still fun, and it's yours!

How do you decide what to try to make?

The bulk of the research I do at the moment, in collaboration with Chris Landee of the physics department, is on the design and preparation of magnetic materials. We're interested in trying to design, at the molecular level, materials for which we can control the magnetic properties of the bulk substance. At the moment, the materials that we're looking at are mostly antiferromagnets, but over the years we've tried to design some ferrimagnets. We found , by accident, a couple of ferromagnets. Happy accidents! You have an "accident" and realize that it might be more interesting than what you were trying to do in the first place. Then you follow that path to see where it goes.

And that's what makes it interesting!

Absolutely! When you get a result that you expected, you have another result. When you get a result you didn't expect, you have a discovery. I wish I could remember who said that!

Another area in which I'm working, and have been for many years, is transition-metal phosphine chemistry. This is purely the happy accident case where we discovered a very interesting reaction. We formed a rather large molecule that had a structure similar to a cage. We've been following up on that to see how general the reaction is and whether we can use that material to do further chemistry. It seems that it may have an application as a catalyst for organic [carbon-based] substances.

I'm also working with my department colleague Karen Erickson on an organic synthesis project where we are trying to prepare analogues of some known natural products that have anti-tumor or antibiotic activity.

Can undergraduates become involved in chemistry research?

Absolutely! From my point of view, it's the most important thing for an undergraduate to do. I don't want to detract from formal course work, because you have to do that first, and continue it, because it provides the necessary background, vocabulary, laboratory and problem-solving skills. But research is the chance to apply what you have been studying. And it's the opportunity to see that what the popular press views as a dichotomy between teaching and research is really not right.

Research is the best teaching tool that I have, for both for my undergraduate and my graduate students. I can set them a problem where they can't go to the library and look up the answer, or even go to the library to see if they did it right, because no one's done it before. Research gives students the opportunity to use the background that they have to do an experiment, to generate enough data and a sufficiently cogent argument that they can convince their peers that what they've done is correct. By peers I mean the greater scientific community, because this is work that we publish. I would say that 70-80 percent of the undergraduates who do research in chemistry at Clark, wind up doing research that's publication quality and is published in national and international journals. The number isn't 100 percent, because when investigating the unknown, you don't know what you will find! And sometimes what you find is 'this doesn't work,' and that's very hard to publish!

Is there a lot of collaboration within chemistry?

Very much so, and collaboration is very typical in the sciences. It's a combination of using it as a learning tool where faculty members have some expertise, the graduate students have some expertise, the undergraduates frequently bring their own expertise. And even at the faculty level, these are all very collaborative because no one has the expertise in all the areas needed to solve a problem. It's good for students because they get to see that you don't have to be the expert in everything. That's not the way the real world functions. You have to have a general knowledge, and then be very good at one area.

I think many non-scientists imagine that scientists work in a very solitary setting, and that doesn't seem to be the case.
Science done in a vacuum is not helpful. You not only have to do the work, but you have to communicate what you've learned. Science simply comes from the word for knowledge, and that's all that science is. But knowledge that is not passed on to others is of no use. So part of it is 'do the work', but part of it is 'tell the world what you've learned'. We do this with our students both through publications in various journals, and presentations at meetings. I frequently will take one or two undergrads with me to the Northeast Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society, where they can present their own papers.

What do you think that Clark has to offer students who want to study chemistry?

The thing that makes Clark unique is the combination of our small size, and the presence of the Ph.D. program. We have full Ph.D. programs in the sciences, but of a size where they don't supplant the undergraduate programs; rather, they supplement them. There is a level of research and academic involvement taking place that you don't find at your typical, undergraduate-only college. But because the graduate programs are small, it means that undergraduates who become involved actually do research, they're not just watching and washing glassware for the graduates students. Undergrads get involved with the faculty. Our faculty members don't direct post-docs who direct graduate students who direct undergraduates. Our set-up really is unique. Every student who wants to become involved with research has the opportunity, and they are encouraged to do so.

How early in their program can they become involved?

We've had students start as early as second-semester freshman year. Typically, beginning in the junior year, or the summer following, is more common. When a student begins is dependent upon the student and the project. Different kinds of research require more background before you can become involved. We also invest a lot in teaching the students the background materials specific to our fields of research, in providing them with the chemicals, the glassware, the physical set-up that they need to do the work, and in training them in unusual techniques. I have a student who just started working with me in January who's doing research on compounds that are not stable to air. So while she had a good general laboratory background, she had no specific knowledge of how to handle air-sensitive compounds. She's done a wonderful job picking up the techniques very quickly so that we can get new, useful information. We're planning to run a key experiment this afternoon.

It's all fun. Fun is the best reason for getting involved. It has to be something that you enjoy. I get up in the morning and I get to go to work; I don't get up in the morning and have to go to work.

 

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