As a young scientist, Anh “Alice” Hoang ’23 has been taught by her college mentors to recognize chemistry’s potential in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. But during a Stonehill Undergraduate Research Experience this summer, she also learned a way in which she and her colleagues might be able to avoid creating new ones. 

In hopes of devising more environmentally friendly products using greener reagents, Hoang built on work previously conducted alongside Professor of Chemistry Leon Tilley in his research laboratory, where they worked on the multistep syntheses of derivatives of oxoammonium salts containing trifluoromethyl or difluoromethyl group with the hope of increasing the oxidizing efficiency of those salts. 

Once compounds were produced, the pair worked to purify them using distillation or chromatography techniques. Subsequently, they used several characterization methods, including nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectroscopy, to identify and characterize the compounds and determine whether the synthesis occurred successfully. 

With that foundation Hoang partnered with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Deno Del Sesto in a SURE project to develop computational models of the compounds she and Leon Tilley produced. Through the use of Gaussian 16 software, she was able to create models of the compounds and run calculations simulating their chemical environments. Relative energies and simulated spectroscopic data were generated and were ultimately used to successfully identify the isomers produced in the experimental work.   

“Alice tackled her research from both a computational and an experimental point of view, setting her apart from many of her peers,” Del Sesto said. “She’s left the SURE program with a breadth of knowledge that will benefit her as she pursues any number of career opportunities. Coming at this project from both sides is a unique opportunity for her.”   

A Deeper Understanding of Science and the Professors Who Teach It 

Besides developing a new understanding of scientists’ responsibility to do no harm and enjoying a well-rounded educational experience, Hoang, a biochemistry major and studio arts minor originally from Vietnam, also gained something else—a new understanding of her professors. 

“If this experience has taught me anything, it’s how busy they are,” she said. “They’re juggling a lot between their research, their students, and their families. I’ve also come to realize they don’t have all the answers, but that’s okay. Part of being a scientist is working through problems to get to solutions.” 

While Professor Del Sesto is no stranger to the results of computational chemistry, up until a couple of years ago, he had not had experience running these calculations himself. Helping students come to know the “human side” of Stonehill’s faculty, and that they themselves never stop learning, is something SURE mentors strive for, according to Del Sesto. 

“I make mistakes and I’m open to constructive criticism,” he said. “If you’re focused on getting everything right and you’re terrified of doing something wrong, it slows you down. Alice and I have been productive when it comes to figuring out what we don’t know. This isn’t easy work. The computations we’ve worked on can be very finicky, but we’re both here learning together.” 

Hoang notes that the experience of running an experiment all the way through is her favorite part of learning alongside faculty through SURE.  

“You go through so much trial and error, so much failure, until you are able to get to that point,” she said. “A good run may not be successful, but at least the experiment is actually running. That little victory is great.” 

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