University of Delaware
Naijing Su explains the Heck Reaction in relation to her research.

Summer scholars showcase

Undergraduate researchers present posters in engineering, sciences


12:39 p.m., April 23, 2013--Now anyone can help researchers find the cure for cancer by lending their computer’s idle processing cycles to science. 

The University of Delaware’s Docking@Home project securely runs a program on volunteers’ computers, when they are not in use, to find new medicines and help cure diseases by simulating infinite interactions between molecular structures in a process known as docking.

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“Say we have a molecular model that is related to cancer, for example. Then the goal is to find another molecule that can attach and deactivate the cancer’s molecular structure,” senior computer science student Michael Matheny explained at the UD Undergraduate Research Program’s Summer Scholars Poster Session on April 19. “We’re trying to find new ways to engage our volunteers so they continue to use and keep the app that allows researchers to run these simulations.”

The simulations require a massive amount of computer power, such that the process would be too slow to run on just one computer. Therefore, volunteers can download the application BOINC, which runs when the owner’s computer is not in use. 

As a summer scholar, Matheny created educational games such as molecular flash card matching, where the actual molecules used in the simulations can be matched to their respective molecule families, to keep volunteers interested and active. 

In addition to Matheny, an Honors Program student who is advised by Michela Taufer, David L. and Beverly J.C. Mills Career Development Chair in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, the poster session featured over 100 other impressive samples of undergraduate research, including research that builds on the work of 2010 Nobel Prize winner Richard Heck, Willis F. Harrington Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Naijing Su, a senior chemistry major, and her faculty adviser, Donald Watson, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, implemented a modified form of the Heck Reaction using metal palladium as a catalyst to activate alkene bonds. The catalyst assists in strengthening the bonding of molecules that typically would not bond to produce organic compounds such as allyl silyl ethers, which have pharmaceutical applications.

As Su explained, "Alkene molecules are not very reactive, but we can activate the double bond with the palladium catalyst, which helps in building larger molecules."

Lynnette Overby, director of UD’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning, congratulated students on their hard work at the event. 

“You get to see the beginning stages of the students’ work, the continuation, and then they share where they are and where they hope to go next at this event — it’s a wonderful opportunity,” Overby said, adding, “This program helps faculty make progress with research and gives students experience that will help them prepare for graduate school and the professional world.”

Article by Sarah E. Meadows

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson

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