After nearly five years, over 1,500 experiments, and more than $100,000 in funding, Professor of Chemistry Nick Robertson and twelve Northland College students* published a paper last month in the Journal of Applied Polymer Science. Additional authors include Professor Michael Carney at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and three of his undergraduate student researchers**.
“It’s very exciting to be a co-author on a paper as an undergraduate because it gives me a competitive edge in applying to graduate school, but also because it’s fun to share the research with my friends and family,” said Northland junior Mary Johnson. “I gave many organic chemistry crash courses over winter break when I told them about the publication.”
The crash course goes like this: Polyureas, a class of plastics that have many uses as protective materials and coatings in construction and the medical field, are made using a toxic starting material. Northland students developed a method to synthesize a wide variety of plastics without the toxic starting material.
The Journal of Applied Polymer Science article adds to a body of research regarding sustainability and chemistry led by Robertson, who was awarded a $364,361 grant in 2017 from the National Science Foundation.
From that grant, Professor Robertson and students have produced two papers on alternatives for recycling plastics, turning waste into usable products, and reducing hazardous chemicals in everyday products. A third paper is in the works.
Robertson is the first to say these projects are not likely to immediately translate into marketable products. But that’s not the point. His purpose is to train students in laboratory research, add to the body of scientific research, and keep the conversation around sustainability and chemistry going.
“It’s small steps forward,” Robertson said. “Science works by discoveries happening all over the world. Few discoveries go directly from lab to commercialization, but rather build upon each other leading to the next generation of technologies. It’s exciting to have undergraduate students playing a role in that process.”
What’s most important to Robertson is that students led the research and trained one another. It’s the same model of mentorship he learned as a student at UW-Eau Claire.
Northland alumnus Louis Corcoran ’16 was in his senior year when he trained the first cohort of students on this project. He is currently a chemistry PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, one of the top programs in the country.
“It was standard practice for older or more experienced students in Nick’s lab to train new recruits on the various techniques so that they, too, could become independent users of the equipment,” Corcoran said. “Having exposure to this training approach as an undergrad has been invaluable to my time as a graduate student, and I have used the same approach to train two high school students, six undergraduates, and one high school teacher on various aspects of my own project.”
Corcoran will be completing his PhD this summer.
“For the first year of grad school, I was responsible for taking graduate level courses, teaching, and getting my project up and running with preliminary experiments,” he said. “Working in the lab as an undergraduate at Northland helped prepare me for these tasks by providing me with the necessary time management, skills, and work ethic to accomplish everything without falling behind.”
Robertson says to stay tuned for more exciting projects coming out of his lab.
*The Northland authors include Christopher R. Langsted, Samuel W. Paulson, John A. Aguirre, Emily J. Saumer, Amelia R. Baclasky, Kyle H. Salmon, Ariah C. Law, Ryan J. Farmer, Casey J. Furchtenicht, Dakota Stankowski, Mary L. Johnson, and Louis G. Corcoran.
**The UW Eau Claire authors include Blake H. Bomann, Shanzay Suhail, Connor C. Dolan, and Michael J. Carney.