For Asmita Shrestha, C’14, it has always been about science. A transfer student from Nepal, she knew exactly what she was going to study at the University of the South. “I’ve always loved chemistry,” she says. “From balancing equations to working in the lab. I find it so colorful and interesting and I always want to know more.”
A long way from home, this summer she finds herself away from her “home away from home” in Sewanee, and in Buehler Hall at the University of Tennessee. The rising senior is one of eight outstanding students selected by the University of Tennessee for this year’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program in chemistry, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
This is not Asmita’s first rodeo when it comes to chemistry research, though. Last year at Sewanee, she investigated the synthesis of galtamycin, an anti-tumor antibiotic, with organic chemistry professor Dr. Rongson Pongdee. “I always considered myself an organic chemist,” Asmita explains. “But last school year I took an inorganic chemistry class and just had to know more.”
That inorganic chemistry class led her to Professor David Jenkins’ lab at UT. Asmita works closely with Jenkins and his doctoral student researchers. A large group, they are split into two teams, focusing on different projects. Asmita is a member of Team Carbene, where she is helping research ways to make metal catalysts more efficient.
“I do a lot of my research in the glove box and I love it. It’s always exciting and feels like I’m working in a space shuttle,” she explains. Her research must be completed in the “glove box” because the chemicals she is working with are air-sensitive and would react if exposed. The glove box allows Asmita to work in a high vacuum, air-controlled environment.
Asmita is researching new ligands for improving transition metal catalysis, using variations of what are known as N-hetrocyclic carbenes. These ligands are organic molecules that bind to metals and enhance their properties, allowing them to aid in catalysis and accelerate chemical reactions. Jenkins’ group is working on making these palladium catalysts even better for carbon-carbon and carbon-nitrogen bond-forming reactions.
This research requires many steps and not all of them will work on the first try, but with a student as determined as Asmita, the research will never be given up on. “The research is just so personal for me. I’m sad if my reactions don’t work the very first time,” she says.
That attitude could lead Asmita to some really interesting conclusions by the time her summer research has finished. If everything were to work exactly as hypothesized, the Jenkins lab, with Asmita’s help, could produce new catalysts that would help scientists conduct their own experiments in the future. “Scientists use catalysts to speed up their experiments, so with better catalysts on a larger scale, scientists could, theoretically, finish their experiments even faster,” Asmita explains. “It’s a huge promise to make with regards to research, and it may turn out that the hypothesis is wrong, but if we’re right, the new catalysts could pay huge dividends by allowing future researchers to finish ground-breaking experimentation, like new medicines, faster.”
Asmita Shrestha plans to attend graduate school to continue studying chemistry, and hopes for a career in research once finished with school.
- Dylan Platz
University of Tennessee, Knoxville