By Sarah Geegan
Nina Elliott and Elizabeth Walsh have assembled an impressive list of accomplishments at UK this year, from creating new derivatives of the molecule phenothiazine, to potentially increasing performance of lithium-ion batteries, to co-authoring a paper in preparation for publication. Their next task to check off: graduating from high school.
Susan Odom, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, has hosted the two Paul Laurence Dunbar High School students in her chemistry laboratory over the past semester. Elliott and Walsh assisted Odom in a project involving specific organic molecules and their utility in lithium-ion batteries.
"The idea is, phenothiazine derivatives have been used as additives for batteries to make them more efficient," Elliott said. "So we wanted to basically create different derivatives which have not been tried yet to see whether they would work more efficiently in lithium-ion batteries."
Their research has significant implications; Odom said that if the students find the ideal derivative of phenothiazine to enhance the performance of lithium-ion batteries, the product could immediately go to market.
"I'm pretty confident that we are going to have a publication about their research as a result," Odom said. "It's very uncommon for high school students to get published. It's great for them to not only be in the lab, but to be on a paper at this young age, at least a paper that I anticipate, is really great."
Despite their lack of college-level organic chemistry, Odom described the students as "gems," equally as productive as many of her undergraduate students. She said that she was very pleased to have the them working in her lab.
Elliott and Walsh have presented their research at the school, district, regional and state level, taking home second place in the chemistry category of the Kentucky State Science Fair.
The students began searching for potential laboratory projects at UK throughout the beginning of the fall 2011 semester and emailing professors to inquire about participating. After hearing back from three different chemistry labs and meeting with the various professors, Elliott and Walsh selected Odom's, in hopes that they would gain experience outside of their high school curriculum.
"When we first interviewed with Dr. Odom, the lab wasn't actually set up yet, so it was pretty much an empty room," Walsh said.
However, Elliott said the "empty room" was an appealing factor in their search for a project.
"I really liked the idea of joining a new lab because it gave me a sense of belonging — that I was here from the very beginning," Elliott said. "I really appreciated the fact that it was a brand new laboratory, and I was going to be one of the first people working in it."
Walsh said that her experience in the lab allowed her to apply concepts from her classes to real-world chemistry.
"It's nice to be able to apply some of the stuff that I've learned, just because we don't really have the resources in high school to do a lot of the really technical lab stuff," Walsh said. "It's good to be able to actually do it."
In addition to learning more skills about making organic molecules, the students were able to do electrical testing, both within Odom's lab and by sending their materials to Argonne National Laboratory.
To help the students prepare for the project, Odom also sent the students advanced articles pertaining to organic chemistry.
"It is amazing for a high school student to be reading peer-reviewed journal articles, written by chemists and electrical engineers," Odom said.
Elliott is continuing work in Odom's lab this year, fulfilling a 360-hour research requirement for the Dunbar Math Science and Technology Center program. Walsh will continue pursuing research in a separate lab at UK.
"I think my experience in this lab will be a big help as I go forward," Walsh said. "I know now that I want to do research as a part of my career because I love science."