Brandywine undergrads seek medical solutions through organic chemistry research

Penn State Brandywine Interim Director of Academic Affairs and Professor of Chemistry John Tierney is taking learning to a whole new level. Students in his organic chemistry classes aren't only attending lectures and completing homework assignments during the semester. They're taking part in significant research, giving them real-world experience before graduating.

Seven former Brandywine undergrads (Samuel Lascio, Kirubel Mesfin, Danial Mitchell, Sarah Sharkey, Lexy So, Jason Treichel and Matthew Waxman), along with Tierney, were named as authors on a recent research publication, which discusses their work that led to the creation of several organic compounds that have never been produced before.

These compounds can be tested and potentially used to serve a wide variety of medical purposes, from fighting foot fungus to inhibiting the growth of harmful tumor cells within the body. 

"We've actually already had related compounds tested and they've been quite active against HT1080 tumor cells in vitro," Tierney said. "Some of these related compounds have even shown activity against certain mental disorders. This is why we are attempting to increase the portfolio of compounds to search for increased activity."

How did Tierney and his chemistry students actually create these compounds? "It's a lot like cookery," he explained. "It's the same thing as you'd do in the kitchen. Our pots and pans are what we call three-necked and two-necked flasks. We heat and boil chemicals and remove the liquids and you end up with a material."

Sarah Sharkey (one of the students named as an author on the research publication) went on to graduate from University Park with a bachelor's degree in earth science. She's currently earning a master's degree in geoscience from West Chester University.

"My undergraduate research experience at Penn State has been the basis for my college career," Sharkey said. "I have fortunately gone on to be a co-author on a pending publication for my field, and would not have the confidence to do so if it hadn't been for Dr. Tierney's organic chemistry lab."  

Tierney has been conducting research with undergraduate students since he started teaching at Penn State Brandywine in 1983. He said that all of the students he worked with "ran the gamut," handling everything he threw their way. 

"Being in the lab is the best part because you really do get to know the students. It's a much more intimate setting," Tierney said. "Doing research shows students the practical side of chemistry."