Emma Timmel works in the Cheray 222 lab recently -- the vertical photo a few down shows her mentor Professor David Heroux to the left as they discuss a day's procedures. (photos by Ethan Simmons)
An adventurous willingness to explore outside the box propelled Emma Timmel ’19 on the improbable path from her Florida hometown and Catholic high school to Saint Michael’s College, where now her advanced science scholarship and year-round research wows faculty mentors.
Recently, another Timmel exploratory excursion impressed national science elites too. Her original research idea to stretch the chemical potential of biofuel production in a way that advances solar panel technology earned Timmel a highly prestigious Honorable Mention among 2018’s national Goldwater Scholarship applicants, who represent the top 1 percent of undergraduate science researchers from America’s best colleges and universities of all sizes.
Put another way, said the Chemistry Department’s Goldwater-application adviser, Professor Shane Lamos, the best 2,000 or so undergraduate researchers in the U.S. typically apply for Goldwaters, with 211 of the $7,500 awards actually being granted alongside 281 honorable mentions – meaning these are essentially the nation’s top 492 undergraduate science researchers. Being among them will be a major boost for Timmel’s resume as she applies to graduate schools, said her most immediate research mentor for the past three summers on biofuels-related research, chemistry Professor David Heroux.
Goldwater Scholarships, intended just for undergraduates, are awarded by Congressional district, so Timmel, who has a double-major in chemistry and environmental science, was competing with other student researchers from the 20th district of Florida. The greater-Orlando native says she’d never even heard of Saint Michael’s before winning the College’s Book Award while in high school -- but once she learned more and visited, she “fell in love” with the campus and science programs, appreciating the advantages of studying high-level science at a smaller liberal arts college.
“I think 100 percent that the advantage here is how you can get so close to the faculty,” she said. “I often think of how if I’d gone to a larger school back home in Florida, my life and goals would be entirely different.” Timmel says she had a suboptimal experience with chemistry in high school, but Heroux and Lamos quickly saw her potential when she aced her initial intro chem class as a first-year. Heroux “bugged her” about considering the major, “and eventually I saw what he saw,” she said.
“Your professors really care about you and take an interest in your goals and what you’re good at here, and the fact you have the chance to do so much undergraduate research – which is rare at larger schools -- really makes you competitive,” she said.
Remarkably for a college of its size, note Heroux and Lamos, this is second time in only five years that a Saint Michael’s student has garnered serious Goldwater attention: Katherine Schutt '14, now a science graduate student at Dartmouth, was named a 2013 Goldwater Scholar in spring of that year. More typically, they said, one would expect to find students from the nation’s major research universities or very top-tier larger liberal arts colleges in the Goldwater mix.
“It’s about the recognition, like being a Rhodes Scholar or other major awards, very prestigious because it is bestowed on so few students and granted by our own Congress and a foundation,” said Lamos. “They’re really looking for the best of the best.”
“She had to come up with her own completely novel research idea,” said Heroux. “A lot of times students are building off something we do or have experience in, but this was something where I didn’t know what she was talking about, so she had to challenge herself with a great amount of reading on her own and coming up with the concept. What makes a really top researcher is the creativity -- coming up with something new -- and her idea, no one’s done it anywhere. It’s a really cool idea.”
That idea behind Timmel’s Goldwater proposal stems from her work the last three year with Heroux on synthesizing bio-fuels using algae. One only has to read her following personal explanation of the work and its importance for a telling sample of her deep understanding of such matters and ability to express that well for other scientists or the public:
“In my synthesis, the calcium oxide catalyst cleaves the phosphorus-containing head from the fatty acid tail of the phospholipid. This phosphorus containing head is called a zwitterion, meaning it has both a positive and negative charge contained within the molecule. In the production of biodiesel, the presence of phosphorus needs to be minimized, so this zwitterion is a regarded as a waste product of my synthesis. I was really interested in the idea of utilizing a waste product from biodiesel synthesis and incorporating it in another environmentally friendly application. In researching uses for this waste product for my Goldwater proposal, I found that a structurally similar zwitterion has been shown to stabilize a lead halide perovskite, which can greatly increase solar panel efficiency. My proposal for the Goldwater centered around testing if the zwitterion I produce as waste could be isolated and applied to the lead halide perovskite film and stabilize the film in a similar way. I was excited about the prospect of not only utilizing a waste product from my synthesis, but doing so in another form of renewable energy as well,” Timmel explains.
She said her work this summer is not really connected to that Goldwater proposal, “as we don't have some of the instrumentation necessary to complete the research I proposed. My work this summer is focused on synthesizing a high surface area activated carbon to remove the phosphorus from the biodiesel, and the phosphorus zwitterion is still ultimately regarded as a waste product.”
This is her third year doing summer research in Cheray’s 2nd floor chemistry labs after Heroux helped her apply for and receive a NASA grant for funding the first years. Says Timmel, “It’s pretty lucky I have professors to point them out -- Dave suggested the Goldwater, too – since I didn’t seek either of these out and had never heard of them.”
Of his summer research with Timmel stemming from earlier work he’d begun before even coming to Saint Michael’s years ago, Heroux says: “It’s practical stuff we’re doing -- any time you can cut down waste, it makes it more economically efficient and environmentally efficient, so it’s a win-win.”
Timmel is among 10 student researchers working with Saint Michael’s chemistry mentors this summer -- a major growth from just a handful a few years ago. Heroux says this year’s group daily supports and bounces ideas off one another to create a vital research-culture dynamic, with their work seriously augmented by new advanced technology that is unusual for a small liberal arts college science lab, such as NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy) equipment put into use in recent months, made possible by a major planned gift from Frank Harrison ’52.
Her work also has led to presenting posters with faculty mentors at American Chemical Society national meetings over the past two years in San Francisco and New Orleans. Spending summer in Vermont for a third year is an added bonus as she sees it.
“I feel I fit in very well in Vermont since I love the outdoors,” says Timmel, who enjoys volunteering on the campus farm as part of her Environmental Studies interests too. (She finds herself thinking of the chemistry of the plants in the garden). She also is a tour guide for the Admissions Office. “I really like when I get a person who’s interested in chemistry, and I always highlight research opportunities,” she says.