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Science Majors and Chemistry Professor Travel to Budapest for Research Project
08.12.13 |
Eötvös Loránd University
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Dr. Timothy Peelen, associate professor of chemistry, has spent the last 12 months on sabbatical teaching and researching in the organic chemistry field in Budapest, Hungary at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE). Assisting him with research at ELTE this summer are Lebanon Valley students Tai Nguyen ’14 and Rachel Denny ’14.

While Dr. Peelen has taught some courses at ELTE, he has primarily been engaged in research with Dr. Zoltán Novák. “It has been a perfect fit for me,” says Peelen. “Novák is a young professor working in organometallic chemistry, which is slightly different from the chemistry that I do at LVC. He's been a really great colleague and has a really active and dynamic research group.”

The research that Peelen has been conducting involves the efficient conversion of light energy, such as sunlight, to other forms of energy. “The best illustration of this concept from nature is photosynthesis in plants; the plant uses chlorophyll (an organic molecule) to absorb light from the sun and, through complex chemical pathways, stores that energy through the synthesis of sugar molecules.

“Similarly, a branch in solar cell technology (dye-sensitized solar cells – DSSC) uses dye molecules to capture sunlight and transfer the energy to a semiconductor material, ultimately generating electrical energy. The light-absorbing dyes are colored molecules, meaning they absorb some part of visible light. Our proposed work approaches the chemical challenge of getting dye molecules to take the light energy that they absorbed and use it to initiate chemical reactions (as opposed to storing the energy as electricity). The reactions we propose to do are nowhere near as complex as the ones nature uses in photosynthesis, but the principles are the same. As a starting point, there are a large number of dyes available for study – preparation of dyes for solar cell applications has really exploded in recent years; though application of these dyes to chemical processes is currently less advanced.”

Nguyen decided to join Peelen in Hungary after working in his organic chemistry summer research group in 2012. “Before the school year ended, ‘Dr. P’ already had his one year sabbatical planned to research in Hungary and approached me after class one day asking if I would be interested in being part of the first international summer research group,” Tai recalls. “He also mentioned that he received an Arnold Grant that would cover the cost of our flight and room and board so from there on I knew I couldn't pass up this type of opportunity.”

The research that Nguyen has been working on took place over six weeks. “The main focus of my research was around a family of highly conjugated benzothiazole dyes (referred to ‘clickable dyes’). The reason of interest in these dyes is because they are fluorescent probe molecules that can be incorporated into or attached to biomolecules to make a tracer. My project was to make different benzothiazole dyes with different substituents (electron-withdrawing, electron-donating, at different positions on the ring) to add to a pre-existing library. The most important thing was that the method of synthesizing these dyes would have to be fast and efficient.”

Psychobiology major Rachel Denny ’14 says she leapt at the opportunity to travel to Hungary, where she has been working on discovering a new photocatalyzed reaction. “It was such an amazing opportunity that I had to say yes,” she says. “I love traveling, seeing new things, and experiencing different cultures.” She especially enjoyed attending a conference in the Hungarian town of Balaton—“Going to a chemistry conference in mostly Hungarian was really interesting,” she said—and experiencing the various festivals and other activities of a vibrant European city. Denny found herself especially challenged by the language, though she quickly learned enough to get by.

“It was pretty easy to immerse into the culture,” Nguyen said. “Most of the people were very friendly toward us and very generous, with the most social people being those that were more fluent in English. For the most part, while we were out in the city, most people could speak some English so we were never really too lost and stranded.”

Peelen’s sabbatical has not been all work either. His three children, Daniel, age 8; Panka (Anna), age 6; and Matthew, age 3, have been immersed in the language and culture of Hungary. “My wife was born and raised in Budapest, and only came to the United States for graduate school, where we met. While we had visited Hungary frequently for vacations, neither the children nor I were fluent in Hungarian. I still probably cannot claim to be fluent, but the children certainly can. Daniel, who is in second grade, and Panka, who is in pre-school, since there is no kindergarten, both went to school here and assimilated very well. Even little Matthew has recently started using Hungarian words that I have yet to encounter.”

“My favorite part of the experience was just being indulged in a new environment,” Nguyen said. “It's always fun when you try things for the first time and being in Hungary it was a new life. We had the opportunity to meet new people, travel to new places, drink new drinks, eat new foods, and just experience everything for the first time ever again.”

Peelen will return to life at the Valley this fall, where he will resume teaching organic chemistry to 70 LVC students. Denny plans to pursue a doctorate in pharmacology after graduation this spring, and Nguyen has his sights set on dental school.

Peelen, Nguyen, Denny, and Peelen's wife, Dora, have been chronicling their experience through the "American in Budapest" blog. Click here to catch up on their entire adventure!


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