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Radical Investigations

Summer Science Series: As part of the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) and other summer endeavors, students are collaborating with faculty advisors on high-level scientific studies—the kind usually reserved for graduate students. What discoveries are they making? This series answers the question.

We’ve all heard that drinking a glass of red wine every day is good for you.  Scientists have established that compounds called antioxidants—commonly found in many vegetables and fruits, including vintners’ grapes—are able to combat harmful molecules in our bodies called free radicals, which have been linked to cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.

“What we don’t know,” says chemistry professor Miriam Rossi, “is how antioxidants are able to do what they do, and what types of compounds are most effective.” That’s what she and her collaborators at Vassar and another local college are trying to find out.

Over the past two months, five students have been working with Rossi and Stuart Belli, also a chemistry professor, in labs in the Mudd Chemistry Building. They are creating natural and synthesized antioxidants, then testing how well they are able to neutralize free radicals. Meanwhile, students at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh are using antioxidants manufactured by Vassar students to test their effectiveness in combating cancer.

Rossi says the complexity of the project required a multidisciplinary approach.  “There are so many aspects of this to deal with, it’s been ideal as a team project,” she explains. “All the parts of this project have really fit together well, and we’re getting results.”

Sharon Lee ’13, Manasi Jiwrajka ’12, and Joanna Prumos, a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey, are working with natural and synthesized forms of certain antioxidants (called chalcones). Prumos joined the team at Vassar this spring on the recommendation of one of her chemistry professors at Ramapo, Jay Carreon, who formerly taught here. The trio is using an X-Ray diffractometer to study antioxidants’ molecular structure.

Regina Krawiec ’15, is building tiny containers (called nanotubes) where the chalcones can be placed and analyzed, and Casey Bartow-McKenney ’14 and Grace Lee ’15 are using a process called cyclic voltammetry to measure the effectiveness of each of the antioxidants in neutralizing the free radicals.

At Mount Saint Mary, biology professor Suparna Bhalla is working with students Joe Prentice and Chris DiRusso, assessing how various chalcones manufactured by the Vassar students attack cancerous cells. “It’s satisfying that we’re all working together,” says Bartow-McKinney.

Prumos says the research is especially timely because many drugs now being used to fight diseases and common infections have become less effective due to overuse. “Our job is to find out which chalcones work best, and that can lead to the development of more effective drugs,” she says.

Grace Lee says she had already learned a lot in a short time. “It took some time to adjust to all the electrochemistry lingo; it was hard at first. But now I feel confident in what we’re doing, and we’re seeing results,” she says. Bartow-McKinney agrees: “It’s exciting to be part of a team that could be on the verge of a breakthrough.”

—Larry Hertz  

Photos © Vassar College/Buck Lewis