Grad students prominent in Brock research appearing on chemistry journal cover

A Brock University research team started off the year with a bang, snagging the cover illustration and featured article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry’s first issue of 2016.

The victory is particularly sweet given the first two authors listed are graduate students and they designed the cover illustration.

“Getting a feature article and a cover was so unexpected and remarkable,” says first author Lee Belding, who is in his fourth year of a PhD program in chemistry. “It just makes me feel really good about my work, that people appreciate it.”

“This is monumental for me,” says Peter Stoyanov, who is in his second year of a Master’s of Science program and the second author listed on the paper. “It’s a gem in my CV. As a team, the paper promotes our lab group and the work that we’re doing.”

Belding and Stoyanov worked under chemistry professor Travis Dudding to produce a new type of molecule that glows and also strengthens a property commonly used in chemical processes.

Dubbed ‘Janus,’ the molecule builds on a class of molecules called the proton sponge, first discovered by UK researcher Roger Alder in 1968.

Proton sponges typically only pick up a single proton, but the molecule developed by the Brock research team is so strong that it can pick up two protons at the same time. Dudding says this new molecule is “truly a superbase,” which is fundamental to physical organic chemistry and is valuable in organic synthesis.

But the researchers made an even more interesting discovery: the new molecule is highly fluorescent.

Belding says the team’s paper was groundbreaking in that what emerged from the research was never created before.

“One of the molecular units that we’re focusing on is very fresh; it’s a hot topic. We’re doing very unique things with it,” he says.

“Featured articles are selected by the editors for their quality, interest, and importance, and have also received especially strong positive comments/ratings from the reviewers,” says Katie Turner, coordinating editor with the Utah-based Journal of Organic Chemistry.

“When I’m in need of cover art, I will do a search within our database for any featured articles that have recently been accepted for publication,” explains Turner. “From there, I will take a look at the reviews, and based off of their ratings, will determine whether they could be selected for cover art.”

“It’s wonderful for Lee and Peter to earn the honour of being ‘research headliners’ in a prestigious journal within their field,” says Dean of Graduate studies Mike Plyley.

“The journal’s editorial team employed an extensive review process to carefully select its cover stories, and in so doing, determined that their article deserved to be placed on the journal’s ‘prime real estate’ – the cover. The nature of the research — the concept through to lab execution and techniques used — is innovative, and the quality of writing is excellent.”

Plyley calls the students’ publishing success “a product of a model graduate student experience at Brock, a relationship built on strong mentorship and the value of students working alongside faculty as partners in research excellence.”

A key to student researchers’ success is having consistent and frequent access to their supervisors, says Stoyanov, something made possible “because we have a small and tight knit group.”

“When a supervisor has a large number of students, he or she does not have the time to take care for students’ development, to really help them progress and learn; the supervisor is just demanding results,” says Stoyanov. If you are a student at a large university, says Belding, “if you’re just starting out, you will talk to a PhD student almost exclusively.”

As supervisor, Dudding stresses the importance of creating a positive, open environment where team members are valued.

“I want my students to be excited about chemistry,” says Dudding. “They see my enthusiasm, my excitement for chemistry, and that wears off on them. They suddenly can see, wow!”

“One policy is that everyone has to get along,” Dudding explains. “We’ll communicate – even when we’re not in the office – about what’s going on in the rest of the world in chemistry, what we’re doing, and just how fun the stuff we’re doing is.

“I try to teach people to be responsible and also be a good human being. If you have knowledge, and self reflection, and you feel good about what you’re doing, you’re more prone to be a good person.”

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