Research Recap for Oct. 15

Western’s faculty and students are engaged in exciting research and scholarship across a variety of fields. Each week, Western Today will share short summaries of the latest developments in scholarly work at the University. Interested in reading in-depth stories about science and research at Western? Go to Gaia, the university's online journal of research, discovery and scholarship, and subscribe (it's free) to that site by clicking the "Follow" button. Want more research news? Follow @WWUResearch on Twitter.

Mark Bussell and Robert Berger

Professor of Chemistry Mark Bussell and Associate Professor of Chemistry Robert Berger, have received a $366,514 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a new class of heterogeneous catalysts for the conversion of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) to solar fuels such as methanol (CH3OH) that can be produced and stored for use when sunlight is not available. As described by Bussell, the principal investigator on the grant, the photocatalytic conversion of carbon dioxide to fuels using sunlight and catalysis is a particularly attractive research challenge to work on, as solving it would enable closing the carbon cycle for transportation systems like long-distance plane travel that will most likely continue to utilize liquid fuels. The catalyst design strategy uses a relatively new area of study — photothermal catalysis — in which light absorption is optimized for catalytic reaction and localized heating within catalyst particles for efficient conversion of reactants to products. Researchers will investigate two kinds of indium oxide semiconductor materials — nanocubes and nanorods — combined with visible-light-absorbing metal phosphides that have distinct and tunable electronic and structural properties. Tools such as scanning electron microscopy and in situ Raman spectroscopy will be used to characterize the photocatalysts, and these studies will be complemented by computational investigation of the electronic and interfacial properties of the metal phosphide-oxide materials. The experimental research is being led by Bussell while the computational studies are led by Berger, co-principal investigator. Two to three graduate students and nine undergraduates will work with the two faculty on this project.

Izzi Piper and Sarah Struyvenberg

A unique student research collaboration in Western’s Chemistry Department led to the publication of an article by two Western graduates in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Izzi Piper was the Sea Bong Chang Biochemistry graduate in spring 2021, graduating with her Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry. She had a College of Science and Engineering Elwha Fellowship in summer 2020 and is now a PhD student at University of California, Berkeley. Piper and Sarah Struyvenberg, who graduated from Western with a Master of Science in Chemistry in 2020, are listed as first authors on a new article in the Journal of Biological Chemistry titled, “Sequence variation in the β7–β8 loop of bacterial class A sortase enzymes alters substrate selectivity.”   

Piper says that when she started school as a freshman at Western, she knew that she was excited by science but knew next to nothing about a career in research. She assumed that the only path available was in healthcare. She was first introduced to the idea of going into research by graduate student and mentor Sarah Bowersox in Associate Professor of Chemistry John Antos’s lab. Piper says that Western faculty’s emphasis on not only their own research but also on teaching and mentorship in a small-group setting made research for her more approachable — something she started to believe she could personally invest in.   

Once Piper discovered lab work with Antos, she got connected with graduate student Sarah Struyvenberg, co-first author on their recent article.  

Struyvenberg was in Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jeanine Amacher’s lab when she worked alongside Piper. Struyvenberg produced enzymes under Amacher’s direction while Piper produced substrates under Antos’s direction. Then collectively, they conducted reactions and analyzed the data. 

Piper’s and Struyvenberg’s unique collaboration grew out of a multi-level mentorship model, which led to their publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Piper’s experience with graduate student and faculty mentorship in Western research has motivated her both to seek her own mentees in her PhD program and to apply to work as an external mentor, fostering interest in the sciences at local elementary schools.