The Long Road of Research

Recent Kenyon alumni pursuing careers in chemistry see their undergraduate research pay dividends.

By Carolyn Ten Eyck '18

Six years after graduating from Kenyon with a double major in biochemistry and neuroscience, Shannon Wright ’16 learned a chemistry paper listing her as an author had been published.

“It was funny to see my undergrad work come out after I had already graduated from my PhD program,” said Wright, now a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But such is the nature of research.

The paper, titled “An efficient synthesis of the inimer gamma-(2-bromo-2-methylpropionate)-epsilon-caprolactone (BMPCL),” is coauthored by a mix of recent Kenyon alumni and students. It came out of years of work in the lab of Yutan Getzler, professor of chemistry. 

In undergraduate labs, research can move at a slow pace, with different generations of students working on the same project. “The point of all the chemistry we did in this paper was to help us develop the techniques to build a stockpile of molecules that we could use in the next step of the project,” Getzler said. “Given the way that undergraduate research operates, it was going to take a long time to build up that stockpile.”

Wright worked to perfect many of those techniques during her senior year, spending hours in the lab on developing a monomer  synthesis and graduating “on the cusp of finishing” the research required for the paper, said Getzler. Finding another student to build on that work took some time. A year of introductory classes, followed by a year of lab experience, is what it typically takes for students to build up the necessary chops for diving into the “hard things” Getzler pursues in his research. “It's ultimately a skilled craft,” he said. Beyond the intellectual work of equations and memorization, one needs steady hands and plenty of hours spent in the lab, observing and assisting.

For Aidan Clarkson ’22, hands-on lab work was a relief after months of virtual learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Senior year, Professor Getzler asked, “Do you want to be more ambitious and work on something that’s going to just take a little bit more effort?” Clarkson remembered. “And I said I was game.” The research Wright, and later Jenna Korns ’19, had spent so much time on began to pick up speed once more. 

When finding his path to organic chemistry, “The most appealing thing was the puzzle aspect,” said Clarkson. “There's a lot of trying to piece together, using various analytical techniques, what it is that you’re seeing and then how to eliminate anything that you don’t want from your reaction.” Clarkson’s work during his senior year built on Summer Science research by Ellie Haljun ’23, Lila Lofving ’24 and Meheret Ourgessa ’23. 

The students involved in Getzler’s research collaborate closely. More experienced research assistants will teach newbies lab etiquette, knowing the success of a project ultimately depends on multiple generations of student work.

Eventually, more than six years after the project began, the paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal, with Wright, Clarkson, Haljun, Korns, Lofving and Ourgessa all listed as co-authors. “The biggest impact of this paper is that there are six undergraduate coauthors on it,” said Getzler, who added that the research process on this topic is just beginning. 

“It's like spending a bunch of time carving a bunch of intricate puppets,” said Getzler, of this phase of work. “That is in and of itself interesting, but if your goal is to put on a show, really what you’re interested in is the performance.”

For Getzler and his student research assistants, the work continues, in the spirit of gradual change favored by the field of chemistry. “The next group of students are all going to be performers. They’re never going to learn how to carve a puppet, you know?” 

Clarkson echoed this sentiment. “I wanted to help finish this project and keep the progress going so that next year they can work on more of the downstream stuff from that paper,” he said. Now an  organic chemistry graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he credits his time in Getzler’s lab as giving him “a good foundation of knowledge.” 

“Even if I don't know how to do everything, I feel confident in my ability to learn how to do everything that I need,” said Clarkson. 

Wright echoed the sentiment: “In Yutan’s lab and also in Paula Millin’s lab, they both allowed me some freedom, sometimes maybe more freedom than I deserved.” That freedom to head up a research project as an undergraduate has paid dividends down the road. “In other institutions that have grad students and postdocs, it can be difficult to feel like you owned a project, you had a say and worked to develop it yourself,” Wright said. “My time doing research at Kenyon really helped me develop the confidence to be independent.”