Discovering an Element of Confidence as a Chemistry Researcher
While conducting research aimed at combating the opioid crisis, Emma Rothe ’24 discovered a newfound confidence in the lab.
As a St. Lawrence research fellow, Emma spent eight weeks this summer conducting research on alternatives to morphine with Associate Professor of Chemistry Samuel Tartakoff. The Research Fellowship Program provides students with a stipend to complete a research project of their interest that culminates in a final research paper, collection of findings, digital media, exhibitions, performances, or other types of creative projects.
According to Tartakoff, research labs around the globe are hard at work examining alternatives to morphine. While the molecules created in the research lab at St. Lawrence may not be as effective as morphine in reducing pain, they could provide a better understanding of the subtle molecular differences that balance pain relief versus side effects, enabling other researchers to develop less addictive opioids in the future.
Emma shared what inspired her to explore the topic and how conducting research alongside her faculty mentor gave her newfound confidence in the research lab.
Note: Responses have been edited for length.
Emma Rothe ’24
Minor: Sports Studies and Exercise Science
Hometown: Hopkinton, New Hampshire
Project Title: “Examining the Wagner-Jauregg Reaction: Providing an Alternative to Morphine”
How would you describe your research to someone who doesn’t know anything about the topic?
The goal of the project is to synthesize a chemical compound similar to morphine without addictive properties. My research focused on manipulating a known chemical reaction to get closer to that goal. I examined the effectiveness of different reactions that could be used in the process of synthesizing a molecule similar to morphine, and tested the reactivity of different molecules to determine which ones could prove to be most effective in the process. To do this, I changed variables such as reaction time, reaction temperature, and the placement of different functional groups on the molecules I was testing. While the project is a large one and likely won't end with me, the goal of my research was to bring the process a step closer to being successful.
What about this topic sparked your curiosity?
I thought it would be fulfilling to work on a project that can have a positive impact on so many people. The opioid crisis affects my home state and I wanted to be a part of something that could have widespread positive benefits. I am also interested in the way that medicine works and wanted to broaden my understanding of the topic.
Was there a moment when you felt particularly challenged during your research process? How did you overcome it?
One of the specific challenges for me was the purification of my compounds. While there was valuable information that could be found with impure compounds, the compounds had to be purified to characterize them and run any further reactions, and there weren't many published resources available to help with that. I had to do a lot of trial and error to figure out what would work, and although it seemed a bit hopeless at times, I eventually figured out a process that worked for me. It was difficult. I knew that I needed to persevere and put in hard work in order to achieve my goals.
What about your research makes you proudest?
I am most proud of overcoming the challenges that took some work to figure out for myself, like the trial and error involved in the purification process. I lacked a lot of confidence in my skills as a researcher prior to the summer; now I’m proud of my growth and have gained confidence in my abilities.
What's the most rewarding aspect of working closely with a faculty member?
I really appreciated Dr. Tartakoff's expertise and supportive attitude throughout the research process. Working with a faculty member that was supportive and patient made me feel comfortable in making mistakes and learning from them built my confidence.
Finish this sentence: “Through my research, I hope to show others that…”
Even though you may not feel confident in your research skills right away, it takes time and practice. Successful research is not necessarily making groundbreaking discoveries every day; it’s a lot trial and error and taking small steps to reach the end goal.