When University of San Diego assistant professor of chemistry Christopher Daley was awarded a prestigious $306,000 grant from the National Science Foundation last summer, it was not only a recognition of the quality of his work, but a boost for undergraduate student research as well.
Daleyâ€™s research on the three-year grant is focused on a family of enzymes called â€œnitrile hydrataseâ€ â€” NHase for short â€” that convert a chemical called a nitrile into a chemical called an amide through a process known as hydrolysis.
â€œMy interest in this enzyme is twofold,â€ he says. â€œFrom the fundamental chemistry standpoint, the active site, or the center, where the reaction takes place is a unique structure and the metal at the center of the enzyme performs chemistry that is uncharacteristic of its typical behavior in other enzymes. Also, the enzyme is used as a biocatalyst in the environmental remediation of wastewater streams that contain the toxic nitrile chemicals, converting them to less harmful amides.â€
Practical applications that may spring from such research include the developments of new catalysts that are more active than the enzyme itself, can be made on a large scale and can be easily modified to perform other hydrolysis actions, he said.
â€œSimilar structures to the NHase active site are also found in a limited number of other very interesting and important enzymes including prions, which have potential implications in Alzheimerâ€™s disease and mad cow diseases, and in nitrogenase, which converts nitrogen in the atmosphere directly to ammonia without the need for high temperatures and pressures that are currently required for our man-made process,â€ he explained.
Though Daleyâ€™s research is highly specialized, USD undergraduate students will play a major role in its development.
â€œA large portion of my grant funds will be devoted to supporting summer stipends for up to a dozen undergraduate students to perform the proposed research in my lab,â€ he said. â€œStudents will perform the majority of the research, with me operating in a supervisory role.â€
Daley and the students will present the results of the research at local and national conferences and publish in peer-reviewed journals, where students will be credited as coauthors.
â€œAs a chemist, my passion is making new compounds that no one in the world has ever made before,â€ he said. â€œBut I am also very interested in working with students, teaching them research techniques and problem-solving skills, watching them grow and excel in the laboratory, and ultimately helping them with the next stages of their lives, whether it is graduate school, professional school, education or industry.â€
Daley considers himself fortunate to be teaching at USD.
â€œThe university is very supportive of undergraduate research and I believe it is a joy that everyone â€” faculty and students â€” should have. At times I have heard that undergrad students could not possibly contribute to any relevant research, as they do not possess enough knowledge or skill to impact the project. It is unfortunate that these feelings still persist.â€
Daley invites anyone who doubts the contributions students can make â€œto take a look at the amazing researchâ€ of USD students at the universityâ€™s annual Creative Collaborations conference where students present their work. This yearâ€™s conference is set for April 21 in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice.
â€” by Liz Harman