USG grant enables GGC chemistry students to create antibiotics

Part of a $275,000 grant from the University System of Georgia (USG) is funding an innovative project through which Georgia Gwinnett College organic chemistry students are creating sulfa drugs in the lab. Once students have synthesized, isolated and purified the sulfa drugs, the newly-minted compounds will be made available to GGC microbiology classes in the fall for tests on their antibacterial activity.

Part of a $275,000 grant from the University System of Georgia (USG) is funding an innovative project through which Georgia Gwinnett College organic chemistry students are creating sulfa drugs in the lab. Once students have synthesized, isolated and purified the sulfa drugs, the newly-minted compounds will be made available to GGC microbiology classes in the fall for tests on their antibacterial activity.

The grant provided $14,000 for curriculum development, chemicals and other support needed for the project, one of many supported by the grant.

“Our previous lab model consisted of a set of unrelated experiments students performed during the semester,” said Richard Pennington, associate professor of chemistry. “Through this project, students must apply their knowledge of organic reactions to know what sequence of reactions lead to success.” The project also required students to do preparatory research and planning.

The project garnered rave reviews from students – as soon as they got over the initial shock.

“When I saw this project, I was initially terrified,” said Anthony Rojas, a junior. “We were used to having our hands held, being told what each experiment was and how we should do them. This was the first chance we had to apply things we learned in lab to the real world. This is what pharmaceutical companies do.”

His classmate, Caleb Helms, had a slightly different reaction.

“I was very excited. I couldn’t wait.  It was the first time I’d get the chance to do what I want to do for the rest of my life,” said the senior from Snellville who plans to earn a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry. “But I also knew that I would be busy this spring, so I decided to research the methodology before the class began. I submitted my research before winter break.”

Those are the sorts of responses that make chemistry faculty smile. 

“With this, we see students having a vested interest in how successful they are from week to week. They see how the results of one reaction will affect the next,” Julia Barker Paredes, assistant professor of chemistry. “That gives them a sense of how real research works.” Later, they’ll have to do a capstone project or an internship to graduate, and they’ll already be comfortable with this process, she said.

“I love this project because it’s been a breakthrough for my students. I’ve seen them shift from a cookbook approach to learning to an approach where they let their inquisitiveness guide their work,” Paredes said. “It confirms what I always tell them: good questions generate good answers. And good answers generate even better questions. It does not end.”

The sulfa drug synthesis project is one of several projects funded by a $275,000 USG STEM Initiative II grant, which was awarded to GGC in the fall of 2011. The key goal of GGC’s STEM Initiative is implementation of a four-year undergraduate research experience for all science majors. The initiative includes several key components, including mini-grants for the development of research-embedded courses, undergraduate research projects and scholarship of teaching and learning projects. 

“This is the largest academic grant received so far by GGC,” said Lois Richardson, acting vice president for Academic and Student Affairs. “Usually, grants are more specific in what they fund. However, this grant permitted tremendous flexibility in its application.”

“The STEM grant allows us to fund a wide range of and programs that enhance the educational experience for students in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Thomas Mundie, dean of the GGC School of Science and Technology. “STEM is a critical area for higher education because of its importance in maintaining the nation’s leadership in innovation.”

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