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Syracuse University chemistry professor emeritus receives Senior Scientist Mentor award
Syracuse University chemistry professor emeritus receives Senior Scientist Mentor awardMarch 28, 2008Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
Syracuse University Professor Emeritus Donald Dittmer has mentored undergraduate chemistry students in his research lab for some 46 years. While the research projects have changed over the years, Dittmer’s enthusiasm for working with students is as vibrant today as it was when he began his career at SU in 1962. Dittmer recently received a Senior Scientist Mentor award from the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, which will support the work of two College of Arts and Sciences undergraduate students in his lab this summer.
The students, Daniel Langevin, a senior biochemistry major, and Kin Yang, a junior chemistry major, will be working with Dittmer to find new ways to synthesize antibiotics and other molecules using the element tellurium as a trigger to create a new compound. “This is a very good project for undergraduate students,” Dittmer says. “It’s an interesting area of organic chemistry, and the students learn good laboratory techniques.”
Dittmer says the challenge in mentoring undergraduate students in a research setting lies in selecting specific investigations that will be significant yet accomplishable. “The students are so enthusiastic,” he says. “I try to choose projects that have the greatest potential for success and that will give students the opportunity to author publications. But in the lab you never know what will happen — it may be something entirely different from what was originally expected. That’s one aspect of research.”
The students’ work in Dittmer’s lab will be their second research experience. Last year, Langevin worked in assistant professor Christopher Boddy’s lab, and Yang is currently working in assistant professor Yan-Yeung Luk’s lab. Yang plans to pursue a graduate degree in either chemistry or organic chemistry and hopes his experience this summer will help shape his final decision. “This summer, I hope to gain valuable and consistent research experience that would not be available during a school year,” Yang says. “I am indebted to Dr. Dittmer for this great opportunity.”
In addition to finishing a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry this year, Langevin plans to complete separate bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and biology next year. “I see this summer as a learning opportunity with actual hands-on experiences and being able to see a project through to publication,” Langevin says. “After I graduate, I want to pursue chemistry in a graduate school in California so that in the future I can be a chemistry professor.”
The research techniques the students will learn in Dittmer’s lab involve learning to add two electrons to a tellurium atom and binding the resulting negatively charged telluride ion to a modified amino acid. The reaction creates a new compound when the telluride ion releases its two electrons to give back the element, which is removed by filtration and recycled. “The tellurium reacts with the derivatives of the amino acids to produce tetramic acids, which form the core molecular structures of a class of antibiotics,” Dittmer says. “We are hoping this will fill a niche in the synthesis of these kinds of antibiotics.”
The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, a leading nonprofit organization devoted to the advancement of the chemical sciences, supports retired faculty who maintain active research programs with undergraduates in the chemical sciences through the Senior Scientist Mentor Program. “Many emeriti faculty no longer teach courses, nor take on graduate students,” says Mark Cardillo, executive director of the foundation. “Their wealth of experience and knowledge, however, makes them a unique and valuable educational resource for undergraduates. This program provides for the development of a relationship between these senior scientists and the students as they engage in perhaps their first research experience to generate new knowledge.”
Dittmer retired from SU in 2001 after 39 years of full-time service to the University. He continues to maintain a research lab and is currently assisted by research associate Venkata Subbarao Kandula, who received a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry from the National Chemical Laboratory, located in Pune, India, in 2006.