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Two TCNJ Chemistry Professors Awarded National Research Grants

Two TCNJ Chemistry faculty members have been awarded national-level grants to support their research programs and to engage undergraduate research collaborators in their work. Dr. Joseph Baker received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the structure and dynamics of bacterial type IV pilus protein filaments, and Dr. Abby O’Connor was awarded a grant from the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund (ACS PRF) to develop iron pincer complexes for carbon dioxide reduction.

Dr. Joseph Baker is a computational chemist whose research focuses on modeling and simulating bacterial proteins. His work helps elucidate the role these proteins play in the process of host-cell binding during infection, in order to better understand how to design more effective treatments against disease. Over the next three years, his NSF-funded project will use advanced computational approaches to better understand the biomechanical properties of protein filaments called type IV pili (T4P). This work will provide insights into the strength and dynamics of T4P across multiple length and time scales, and importantly will bridge the gap in knowledge between the experimental and theoretical understanding of the biomechanics of these protein filaments. The project will expose Dr. Baker’s many undergraduate research students to a highly cross-disciplinary field at the interface of biology, physics, chemistry, and computer science. As part of this award, Dr. Baker will also develop computational learning modules and incorporate them into the undergraduate chemistry curriculum. These modules will help educate undergraduate students at TCNJ and beyond in the computational methods that are increasingly important in all scientific fields.

Dr. Abby O’Connor is an organometallic chemist whose research program focuses on the development of more energy efficient and sustainable means to produce fuels and chemicals. The overall goal of her ACS PRF-funded project is to investigate how to convert carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the combustion of fossil fuels primarily obtained from petroleum reserves, to a valuable source of carbon for fuel and chemical production. Carbon dioxide is generally unreactive, but catalysis can be invoked to turn it into something of value; the strategy that Dr. O’Connor’s PRF-funded project focuses on is reduction. In this research, Dr. O’Connor and her undergraduate research team will develop and investigate single-site iron complexes and evaluate hydrogenation of CO2 to formate and ideally methanol. They will synthesize and characterize new diphosphinopyridine (PNP) pincer ligands and coordinate these ligands to iron to yield new coordination complexes. The team will investigate the mechanism for CO2 reduction using these iron complexes. The project will provide valuable research experiences in the field of organometallics for TCNJ’s undergraduate researchers, as they work with Dr. O’Connor to design more efficient and versatile catalysts for carbon dioxide reduction, while collaborating with chemists at nearby research institutions.

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