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Chemistry Major Explores Ways to Bring Labs to Life

Published: July 25, 2016
Zachary Gregg '17 is spending 10 weeks of his summer with the Research Experience for Undergraduates program hosted by Florida International University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Zachary Gregg '17 is spending 10 weeks of his summer with the Research Experience for Undergraduates program hosted by Florida International University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Zachary Gregg ’17 has his mind set on graduate school. For no other reason than because he likes to learn.

“I have a strong desire to learn and do research beyond what a student can do at an undergraduate level,” said Gregg, a chemistry major from North East, MD. “I want to be a part of the process of learning new information, rather than just absorbing it.”

Gregg is spending 10 weeks of his summer with the Research Experience for Undergraduates program hosted by Florida International University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, “Sensors and Sensing: From Molecules to Applications.” The group of undergraduates participating is conducting research as well as attending weekly seminars and workshops on chemistry-related themes, ethics in science and professional growth.

Gregg is paired with FIU Professor Martin Quirke. The University of Tampa has had two other students participate in the program in the past.

“I'm helping Dr. Quirke create an experiment that undergraduate organic chemistry students could perform in their labs, and that has an observable difference between product and starting material so that the students can clearly see that a transformation has taken place,” Gregg said. “Dr. Quirke wants to give the students something concrete to relate to these concepts — usually in lab we can only see that a change has occurred by deciphering graphs produced by analytical instruments.”

In addition to assisting Quirke, Gregg is working on an individual research project involving synthesizing porphyrin complexes to collect structural and electronic data about the compounds.

“Porphyrins are the chemical substructures in hemoglobin that bind oxygen so it can then be transported throughout the human body,” Gregg explained. “Porphyrins are the substructures in chloroplast that absorb light to start the process of photosynthesis. Besides these roles, porphyrin complexes also play other biologically important roles, which makes them of interest to study outside of living systems, from a chemical perspective.”

Gregg is working to modify these compounds to distort the molecules, as there is potential to use these distorted molecules to some degree to model what happens in biological systems. He hopes to present his work at a conference held by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and submit the work for publication.

One of the highlights of the summer research experience has been presenting his work in front of graduate students and peers, as well as learning from Quirke. Gregg’s long term goal is to earn a doctorate in theoretical or computational chemistry.

“We use math to understand chemical pathways,” Gregg said. “It’s interesting, but it can be frustrating.”

He describes how synthetic chemists create new molecules that haven’t been seen before by going into the lab, mixing chemicals together to see their product, but then change one or two different things to create a new product.

Gregg’s interest in research was one of the reasons he chose UT, which was appealing for its small class sizes. But he said he was surprised at how caring and supportive his professors have been in all of his classes, not just the sciences.

“UT has the mentality that if you want to do research, and you’re actively looking for opportunities, they’ll help you out,” Gregg said.


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