Undergraduate chemistry and biology students at Tusculum University are exploring new frontiers typically associated with the masters and doctoral levels that might present solutions to varied subjects impacting the world.

This semester, Tusculum‘s natural sciences department kicked off a more formalized research program, which prepares students for further studies at advanced stages of their academic and professional careers. The inaugural group consists of three chemistry majors and two biology majors who are putting their knowledge and talent to work in the Meen Center’s research labs.

The topics being explored are renewable energy and cancer. Specifically, the group is looking into designing and making new materials for solar energy conversion and new drugs for chemotherapeutic applications.

“We have developed this program to prepare students fully to enter a comprehensive research program at the masters and doctoral levels or to pursue a career in industry immediately after graduation from Tusculum,” said Dr. Dennis Ashford, an assistant professor of chemistry at the university. “We are training them to develop critical thinking skills and presentation capabilities and to become independent scientists. This is an excellent opportunity for the students, and we are thrilled to be able to incorporate it in our offerings.”

Recently, the natural sciences department earned a $5,000 grant from the East Tennessee Foundation to pay for supplies, such as chemicals and instrumentation, for the undergraduate researchers. Dr. Ashford said he has submitted another grant application and is looking for others that will empower Tusculum to grow the research program.

Tusculum’s involvement will be ongoing, with the initial group of students handing off their work to their successors. Dr. Ashford said the department wants students to present their results at regional and national conferences and to publish in peer-reviewed professional journals.

“We are seeking to increase the knowledge base in renewable energy and cancer research with our audiences,” he said. “We are, of course, also hopeful our students’ work will lead to breakthroughs in these areas and any others we study in the future. It’s impressive to imagine research that originated at Tusculum could influence the health and well-being of our fellow humans.”

The research program enables students to learn chemistry and biology concepts in class and then experience them firsthand in the research lab. Annie McCullough and Pau Peiró Vila, who are junior chemistry majors, said the program will give students an advantage when they apply for graduate schools and jobs because they will be able to highlight their experience with chemicals, lab equipment and research methods.

Peiró and McCullough are tackling renewable energy.

“I think it’s such a big field that’s so important, but I think it’s overlooked a little bit,” McCullough said. “It’s interesting to research this topic and see what can be accomplished or how things could be better addressed. We might not save the world, but there is still a lot of value in examining this subject in greater depth.”

Carter Delsorbo, a junior majoring in biology with a pre-medicine concentration, is working on the design of new photodynamic chemotherapeutic medications.

“If this drug works, chemotherapy will be a much less challenging experience for people who have been diagnosed with cancer,” Delsorbo said. “Patients will not experience the effects of chemotherapy nearly as much, and it could increase their chances for survivability. I’m enjoying my participation in this project, which could transform the care of cancer patients.”

Peiró views the program as a great opportunity to hone his skills and to use them to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

“We’re learning about the things we can do,” he said. “We are improving our abilities, and maybe we will be fortunate and find something that no one ever saw before. With research, you never know what you’re going to discover, but I am excited about all of the possibilities.”

McCullough recognizes her group is a trendsetter for the program and hopes the five researchers will inspire future students in the natural sciences department to know research might be an option for them. She said it can even serve as a recruiting tool for the university.

If he pursues a medical career, Delsorbo knows his experience with Tusculum’s research program will help him better appreciate the reasons it takes awhile for medicines to make their way through the development and approval process. But most of all, he sees long-term positive results for Tusculum now that it has initiated this program.

“This could evolve into something that could be the hallmark of the whole university,” Delsorbo said.