National Science Foundation Grant Supports Research of Chemistry Professor and Students 

Posted May 16, 2023

It’s been a standout year for Otterbein’s Department of Chemistry. In fall 2022, the department started enrolling students in its Environmental Chemistry major. In spring 2023, six students presented their research projects at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Indianapolis.  

In the department’s most recent outstanding achievement, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Otterbein a grant of $271,261 for a project called Research in Undergraduate Institutions: Solvent-Free Synthesis of Transition Metal Halide Clusters, led by Professor Dean Johnston. 

This three-year project will support Johnston and his students as they develop methods to prepare new transition metal halide cluster materials.  

“Undergraduate research is an immersive experience that allows students to apply and refine skills that they have learned in their Otterbein classes. At the same time, it is completely different because we don’t know what to expect as we analyze each experiment. Did we get the product we wanted? Does this material have the properties we are looking for? Exploring questions in the lab is how students connect with what it means to be a scientist,” said Johnston. 

This NSF grant will support summer research and travel to national meetings for three students each of the three years of the granting period. Additional students are also working on different aspects of the project, supported by the Chemistry Department and other grants (NSF S-STEM). 

Grant funds will be used to acquire new equipment and to upgrade existing equipment, including the X-ray diffraction and Raman spectroscopy instruments acquired through Johnston’s prior NSF awards.  

Johnston and the student researchers will develop new synthetic routes to substituted transition metal halide cluster materials. Metal halide clusters are comprised of an octahedral core of metal atoms surrounded by a cube of halide atoms. This family of clusters is strongly phosphorescent and has unique electrochemical properties, making the clusters potentially useful for bioimaging, catalysis, and oxygen sensing. The central cluster core is very stable, making it an ideal building block for the creation of new compounds, linking cluster units to form chains or three-dimensional networks.  

The research will have practical applications in the medical field. 

“This family of materials has been shown to be effective in the medical field as contrast agents for tissue imaging and show potential for use in targeted antibacterial treatments using photodynamic therapy. Tumor cells have also been shown to be sensitive to metal cluster-induced cell death, making these compounds a potential new class of anti-cancer drugs,” Johnston explained. 

Current solution-based methods for preparing modified clusters are limited by the reactivity and solubility of the products, restricting the types of materials that can be achieved. This project seeks to overcome obstacles with current synthetic techniques and will use thermal heating and mechanical grinding of metal cluster salts to prepare novel materials with potential applications for optical devices and sensing.  

Undergraduate students at Otterbein will engage with this project through summer research experiences and activities integrated into the Inorganic Chemistry laboratory, gaining valuable experience in independent research and the synthesis and characterization of inorganic materials. These research experiences will complement the activities of the Cardinal Science Scholars Program, an NSF-supported program of academic, co-curricular, and non-academic activities demonstrated to increase retention and graduation in STEM. 

“Students who have completed a summer undergraduate research experience develop confidence in their laboratory skills and ownership of their individual project. They become an expert in their research topic and are able to effectively present their work to their peers and to the wider chemistry community at national meetings,” said Johnston.