Professor Rich Gurney on Undergrad Research

June 25, 2015

Rich Gurney

Professor Rich Gurney talks about the work Simmons College students are doing with support from a SRCEA URO grant.

Tell us a little bit about Simmons College’s partnership with the SRC Education Alliance and the SRC Undergraduate Research Opportunities program.

The SRC Education Alliance supports the Simmons Chemistry and Physics Department's mission in "Educating women to become research-empowered, responsible global citizens."

SRCEA funds support undergraduate research assistant stipends, professional development opportunities such as presentations at national professional conferences, our Build Your Science Toolkit workshops, and also our research integrated organic laboratory curriculum.

What did Chemistry and Physics students work on this year, and how was that work highlighted?

In recent years there has been great interest in the design and construction of micro and nanostructures having functional responses to external stimulus, especially for use as photoresist materials. Our studies involve the synthesis, characterization and copolymerization of monomers containing thymine residues with ionic styrene derivatives.

This year, students greened the synthesis of 1-(4-vinylbenzyl) thymine (VBT) through a Plackett-Burman Experimental Design study.

SMART Scholars Caitlin Horgan ‘16, Hannah Schalck ‘16 and Kirsten Vickey ‘16 presented their research findings at the 249th National American Chemical Society Meeting in Denver, Colorado in March 2015. SMART Scholars Deepa Kumarjiguda ‘15 and Caitlyn Normand ‘15 also presented our Build Your Science Toolkit Program at the same conference.

[For an explanation of the project and a demonstration of the work from a Simmons student, watch "Chemistry of Electronics: The Synthesis and Application of a Polymer to Green Circuit Board Construction."]

What has been the most exciting discovery to come out of the lab this year?

SMART Scholars were able to optimize the synthetic variables to improve the yield of the VBT monomer from [about] 45 to [greater than] 70%. The highest reported yields published in the literature were [about] 50%.

Why is improving the yield of VBT important in the lab, and what will that mean outside of the lab?

Less materials will be needed to produce the same amount of product. Less materials leads to cheaper prices of electronics for consumers and also less waste created in the process, which lessens the environmental impact of the process. More benign solvent [usage] leads to less volatile organic compounds (VOC) ending up in the environment. The polymers our students are creating can be used and reused multiple times for the same application and they use water as a solvent instead of traditional VOCs.

Why is it important for undergraduates to gain research experience early in their college career?

Undergraduate research is an opportunity for our students to gain real-world experience, in which they develop higher order critical thinking skills and confidence in their scientific abilities. Students improve their "soft skills," their leadership skills, and more deeply explore career options. Conducting research is superior laboratory training that leads to professionalism and maturity. Research also leads to improved ability to earn jobs in academics, industry and pre-professional programs.

Can you tell us about a student that benefited from their research experience post-graduation?

Nina Chen '15 was offered three different job offers to work in the Boston chemical industry before she graduated. She accepted her dream job working in one of the world's premier analytical chemistry firms specializing in polymer characterization.

How would an interested student find out more information about undergraduate research in chemistry or physics at Simmons College?

Interested students should contact me directly via email at Our research group also meets weekly from 3:30 - 5:00 pm on Wednesdays in S414 throughout the academic year.