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Undergraduates Work in Unni Lab to Develop New Reactions in Organic Chemistry

Undergraduates play a key role in the lab of Aditya Unni, assistant professor of chemistry, who specializes in asymmetric catalysis, or catalyzing the formation of one mirror image of a molecule over the other, and the synthesis of natural products, or making small, potentially therapeutic molecules found in nature from scratch. Since 2010, 11 undergraduates have worked in Unni’s lab either over the summer or during the academic year to develop new reactions in organic chemistry such as metal-free asymmetric catalysis and efficient synthesis of small molecules for the treatment of diseases. Key current projects address total synthesis of natural products with anti-cancer properties and synthesis of chiral (molecules that have non-superimposable one mirror image structures) building blocks using organocatalysis.

“The overarching goal of the research team is to discover new chemistry that can advance the field and better society, while training students in the theory and practice of doing experimental research in chemistry,” Unni says.

Chris Kalnmals (CHEM ’13) worked with Unni for two and a half years primarily on the synthesis of new polymeric networks (extended structures of polymers containing functional pores). In one project, he helped develop the synthesis of a new polymer of ternary acetylides, and in another he was awarded the College of Science Undergraduate Summer Research Stipend to help develop the synthesis of a functionalized porous polymer to catalyze reactions. The training and experiences he gained while doing research led him to pursue a Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry at Stanford University.

Ethan Chang (CHEM ’14) focused on the synthesis of a natural product that is very toxic to several robust types of cancer cells but appears to be tolerated by normal cells. Running experiments with Unni and graduate students, Chang learned to think about doing scientific experiments with care and precision to achieve the target molecule in the fewest number of steps and greatest efficiency. The attention to detail and critical thinking skills he learned in the lab will serve him well as he goes to medical school, and his understanding of the development of drugs will provide him with a unique perspective on the medicine that he one day prescribes.

For four semesters and two summers, Tom Vukson (CHEM ’14), worked with Unni on an organocatalyzed asymmetric synthesis of a complex natural product with exceptional anti-cancer properties. Vukson investigated the initial steps of this synthesis and improved the first two steps of the reaction by combining them into one step. Through his research experience, he ran hundreds of reactions and learned how to design, execute, and analyze the difficult experiments needed to synthesize a natural product—great preparation for his plan to go on to graduate school to do research in organic chemistry and make the next generation of anti-cancer agents.