UNI chemistry project offers students rare opportunity

It’s easy to walk out of University of Northern Iowa Chemistry Professor Josh Sebree’s class and wish you had decided to become a chemist.

Listen to him describe the research projects of his Instrumental Analysis students and there’s a moment of clarity where you realize the ubiquity of chemical systems, that the rules and structures Sebree teaches underpin literally everything we touch, smell and see.

Consequently, chemistry can be deployed to solve about any problem. Want to find out which roast of coffee has the most caffeine? Chemistry can get you there. Want to solve the problem of bronze disease, which corrodes the leather of historic artifacts in museums across the world? Chemistry likely has the answer. How about figuring out what type of foods were kept in ancient Peruvian sacrificial jars? Chemistry has you covered.

These are all questions that students in Sebree’s class are striving to answer. The projects offer a rare opportunity – not just for UNI students, but for any undergraduate. Student teams are given free rein to brainstorm a research project, run the instruments to collect data and then analyze the results, which they also present on a poster to the public. This is usually the territory of graduate students. But Sebree is bringing it to an undergraduate laboratory.

“I want it to be one of those courses where, when they put it on their resume, they’re putting a skillset down,” Sebree said. “You learn how to analyze the data, you learn how to run the instrument, you learn some of the parameters you can tweak to make the data look better. These are techniques that grad schools love.”

A disease without a cure

University of Northern Iowa chemistry student Brian Pauley showcases the World War I belt he is studying with fellow students.
UNI chemistry student Brian Pauley showcases the World War I belt he is studying with his classmates.

One of the student teams is examining bronze disease – a phenomena that erodes and eventually destroys metal alloys that contain copper. It usually occurs with historical artifacts, and the destruction the disease causes plagues museums everywhere. 

So far, no one knows how to “cure” this disease, so a team of Sebree’s students are examining a belt used in World War I from the UNI Museum’s collection to test never-before-researched ideas to solve the problem.

“As far as college experiences go, this is very unique,” said Brian Pauley, a senior chemistry major. “This is an actual real-world problem we are researching. Being able to work with the actual instruments and artifacts is huge for an undergraduate experience.”

The students have been running chemical analysis on tiny fragments of the bronze parts of the belt – fragments they sliced off themselves, with the museum’s permission.

It’s known that the corrosion is caused by chloride, so the group is using a scanning electron microscope, which can magnify an image more than 1,000 times, to examine pieces of the bronze. They then use energy dispersive X-ray analysis to map what elements are present on the metal’s surface and determine if the treatments they are experimenting with are successful.

The team’s work is still preliminary, but Pauley and senior chemistry major Nicole Bishop presented their initial findings at the Iowa-Illinois Undergraduate Research Conference in October. The topic generated substantial interest and their poster ended up winning Best Undergraduate Poster. 

Beyond winning the top prize, presenting their research at the conference helped further both of their career goals. Bishop, who plans to go to graduate school, gained valuable experience presenting her research to a broad audience.

“A lot of grad schools want to see that you’ve conducted the research and have the ability to go out and explain it to people,” Bishop said.

Pauley, who plans to look for work in the industry, said he received emails after the presentation with possible job offers after he graduates.

See the research results

The students' research results will be on display during a poster presentation from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. November 29 at the Rod Library.

“That’s an opportunity I got thanks to the department and thanks to Dr. Sebree getting us to the conference and allowing us to present there,” he said.

The roast with the most

It’s a question assuredly asked by bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived students across campus: Which coffee roast contains the most caffeine? 

Well, another group of Sebree’s students is trying to find the answer.

The team is working with Sidecar Coffee to investigate the query. Students visited the local coffee shop’s roasting facility and took samples of coffee at different stages of the roasting process. The students are now separating the caffeine from the coffee and using a Capillary Electrophoresis Instrument to measure its amount.

It’s a new approach to caffeine analysis, and, if it works, it would make the process simpler and more efficient, said Kashif Shaikh, a senior biochemistry major.  

“The best part of this research is to think independently and come up with new ideas to bridge a gap in the literature” Shaikh said. “All of the stuff we’re doing no one has done before.”

Like the other groups, the project was conceived and carried out by the students.

“Even in UNI, this seemed unique,” Shaikh said. “Usually, you join a professor that is already working on stuff. For us, it was an opportunity to brainstorm and choose a topic ourselves.”

Like Bishop, Shaikh is looking at graduate school as his next step, and he’s hoping his work in Sebree’s class will help achieve that goal.

“One thing I can talk about is that I’ve designed my own project and presented it,” Shaikh said. “That will make my application stronger.”