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Student Research Fellowship Studies Chemical Properties by Computer Simulation, Versus Lab Work

PhotoWyatt Varga

There is no bubbling beaker of butanol under observation on a laboratory table in the Ferris State University Science Building. However, a Biology student actively gathers data on that chemical compound as part of the Student Research Fellowship program.

A collaborative effort is underway as part of the 2021 SRF program. Bill Killian, a professor of Physical Sciences, supports associate professor Luis Rivera’s oversight of underclassman Wyatt Varga, studying the effects of hydrogen bonding as they apply to the viscosity of 1-butanol. This primary alcohol has applications in fuel compounds.

“I am impressed by the work that Luis and Wyatt are doing,” Killian said. “Dr. Rivera is very involved in theoretical chemistry and is offering Wyatt an important learning experience through the fellowship.”

Their study is an example of molecular dynamics simulations, where computer simulation allows the analysis of the physical movements of atoms and molecules.

PhotoLuis Rivera

“It is a real challenge to simulate the viscosity of this compound,” Rivera said. “This is a great experience for Wyatt as he can use critical thinking to help us move toward our determinations in this study. Determining the viscosity can tell us how hydrogen bonding affects the composition of the fluid.”

Varga, a native of New Baltimore, is excited about the Student Research Fellowship program’s learning opportunities.

“I have learned a great deal, as Dr. Rivera helped me get comfortable, in the first couple of weeks with the type of observations I would be making,” Varga said. “I know this work is broadening my level of understanding chemistry, which will certainly help me with the laboratory studies that are ahead in my curriculum.”

Rivera is in his third year of mentoring Student Research Fellows, with two projects receiving his oversight in both 2018-19. In each case, molecular dynamics simulations were central to the research activity.

“This level of exposure and participation in research activity is so valuable,” Rivera said. “The student fellows take real ownership in these projects. I want them to reach solutions, which will improve their critical thinking and foster their creativity. Research is a learning tool that provides the student growth, development and training.”

Wyatt said he was grateful for the opportunity to take part in research as an underclassman.

“I can see several possibilities developing from this experience,” Varga said. “I expect to apply what I have learned toward my desire to work in the biology field.”