’Domski ’03 remembers value of undergrad research experience

From left, researchers Sallie Hohenboken '13, Mike Szmurlo '13 and Kristine Counter '12 with Dr. Greg Domski '03, assistant professor of chemistry, in the lab last summer.

A $50,000 research grant awarded to chemistry’s Dr. Greg Domski will enable four Augustana’s students to accumulate the number of lab hours typical of graduate students beginning their second year.

“Compared to the average undergrad, they will be far better equipped and have an edge when applying for positions in industry, government and grad schools,” Dr. Domski said.

A 2003 Augustana graduate, Dr. Domski was awarded the funding through the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund Undergraduate New Investigator grant program. He will use the money to support two student researchers during the summers of 2012 and 2013 and to purchase supplies and equipment necessary to conduct the proposed research.

He and his students will explore hydrogenation, a form of chemical reaction between molecular hydrogen (H2) and another compound or element, usually aided by a catalyst (in this case,a metal that makes the reaction go faster, at a lower temperature and lower pressure). Vegetable oils may be converted from liquids to solids by hydrogenation. Margarines and shortenings are “hardened” in this way to make them solid or semi-solids.

Most hydrogenations use the highly flammable gaseous hydrogen (H2), but as Dr. Domski points out, “It’s dangerous and costly for undergraduates to work with hydrogen gas.”

Transfer hydrogenations are safer and less expensive. Dr. Domski and his students will work on a reaction that begins with isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) as an alternative for H2. Using two metals tethered together, instead of one metal, as the catalyst, Dr. Domski expects “the two metals to cooperate and make the reaction (transfer hydrogenation) go faster and make a new alcohol.”

Several industries-food, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and agricultural-use the hydrogenation process. Each could benefit if the process could be completed more quickly and at a reduced cost.

In the fall of 1999 as a first-year student, Dr. Domski was leaning toward pre-med, but after a couple of weeks in Dr. Randall Wanke’s class, he was hooked on chemistry. Dr. Wanke explained how the hydrogen-bonded network of water molecules helps determine the size of the bubbles that spring from the bottom of a champagne glass, and for the first time Dr. Domski began to see chemistry in the world around him.

While studying chemistry at Augustana, he worked as a student researcher for two summers at Northwestern University and attained 800+ additional hours in the lab. He’s pleased that through this grant, his first since he began teaching in 2008, he can provide that kind of high-impact experience for his students here on campus.

After Augustana, Dr. Domski went on to earn a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Cornell University in 2008. He’d known for a long time that Augustana was the kind of school where he wanted to teach, and to this day feels fortunate that Augustana’s chemistry department needed a professor when he needed to find a teaching job.

When he arrived, Dr. Domski received Bridge Funds from the college to conduct preliminary research. This is done in anticipation of using preliminary results to garner external funding. He used the funding to purchase equipment and chemicals. During the past three summers, he employed seven students in lab research thanks to the Augustana Summer Research Fellowship program and the chemistry department. The investment worked.

“We obtained promising enough results to show a good chance of success; that helped us in being accepted for this $50,000 grant,” Dr. Domski said. He said he appreciates now being in a position to support four student researchers with funds secured from an external source, and give them an edge on a chemistry-related career.