Lab Becomes 'Ultimate Melting Pot'

Lab Becomes 'Ultimate Melting Pot'

Collaborators travelled different paths to join successful research team

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The lineup of the research team that pioneered the synthesis of 60-atom carbon "buckyball" molecules shows Boston College is a place where young scientists can shine.

Margaret Boorum PhD '01, who worked in the lab of Prof. Lawrence Scott (Chemistry) for two years, has high praise for Scott and her other colleagues in the "buckyball" project. (Photo by Dawn Scott)
Prof. Lawrence Scott's (Chemistry) co-authors on a Science article describing the breakthrough include a fledgling Ph.D making her second appearance in the journal in less than six months; an African-American who benefited from a program to boost minority graduate scholarship; visiting fellowship winners from Germany, and a former undergraduate.

The group devised a 12-step route to create C60 buckminsterfullerenes, or buckyballs, soccer-ball-shaped molecules of remarkable strength that represent the third form of carbon after diamond and graphite, and are seen having a range of medical and industrial uses [see related story].

"Our research lab is the ultimate 'melting pot,'" said Scott. "I have co-workers ranging in experience from sophomores to graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows. Mixing everybody together makes it easy for the younger students to learn from the older ones who are working beside them. The situation is not unlike journeymen carpenters learning from master craftsmen.

"Sometimes the range is even broader. At the inexperienced end, I occasionally have freshmen and even high school interns in my lab. At the top end, faculty members from other institutions sometimes come and spend their sabbaticals working in my lab. The whole environment is highly stimulating.

"Our diversity also cuts across gender, nationality, color, and other common boundaries. Sometimes my lab is more than 50 percent women, and there are always students from overseas. Those differences just don't matter. Good chemistry is all that matters in our little corner of the campus.

"In a research lab, the smarter you are and the harder you work, the more you will be respected by the others...Everyone has an opportunity to shine."

Co-author James Mack, a post-doctoral research associate in chemistry at BC, said: "The rational synthesis of C60 represents one of the great accomplishments in organic chemistry. This accomplishment is an example of some of the excellent pioneering research going on in the chemistry department at Boston College. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to take part in this very important project as well as future projects of this nature in Professor Scott's group."

Mack joined Scott's group as a postdoctoral research associate upon completing his doctorate in chemistry at the University of New Hampshire. An African-American, he studied at UNH under a New England Board of Higher Education program to support minority doctoral students and encourage them to pursue teaching careers. Boston College and the National Science Foundation have jointly funded his work in Scott's lab.

Margaret Boorum PhD '01 worked on the C60 synthesis for more than two years as a graduate student in Scott's lab, and now works as a senior research chemist at Albany Molecular Research in New York.

The Feb. 22 article in Science was her second for the prestigious journal in five months. She was the lead author of an article that laid the groundwork for a rational synthesis of C60, and ran in the Oct. 26, 2001, edition of the magazine.

"Perseverance was most definitely the key to all of this," said Boorum. "I had to try many routes to find one that worked, but we never would have found one at all if it weren't for the work of many people, past and present, in the group.

"This is a huge accomplishment for Larry Scott, and I'm just glad that I found myself - for a while, at least - in the middle of it. Larry was an excellent advisor. He is always available for his students, be they undergraduates, grad students, visiting students, or post-docs."

Boorum cites the work of Brandon McMahon, who participated in the project before graduating in 1997 and going on to medical school, as an example of the strength of BC's undergraduate research program.

"Brandon was an excellent teacher," she recalled. "He was excellent in the lab, and taught me the fundamentals of what I needed to know."

Co-author Jarred Blank, another doctoral student in chemistry at BC, while not a member of Scott's research group, operated the mass spectrometer used in the project.

Three other co-authors come from German universities. Armin de Meijere, chemistry professor at Georg-August University in Gottingen and a longtime collaborator with Scott, provided the apparatus used for the final step of the synthesis, while Stefan Hagen and Hermann Wegner spent a year in Scott's lab on post-doctoral fellowships.

Hagen, now a research chemist at the Technical University of Denmark, said: "Larry Scott had the right touch to motivate students and post-docs. He was in constant communication with all of us in terms of our scientific work in the lab - probably one key for his great success."

"I think, that it speaks very much for Larry Scott as a person that he included us on the paper after such a long time."


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