Chemistry student Zack Zurfluh-Cunningham (left) and classmate Devin Ericson with Zurfluh-Cunningham’s prize-winning undergraduate poster presentation.
Webster biology student Zack Zurfluh-Cunningham is taking his research out of the lab and on the road.
This summer, Zack and his undergraduate classmates Joseph Callahan and Devin Ericson joined chemistry professor Ryan Groeneman and researcher Eric Reinheimer on a trip to the 24th annual Midwest Organic Solid State Chemistry Symposium (MOSSCS), held at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where they made a total of four presentations on their original research. Zurfluh-Cunningham won the prize for the best undergraduate poster presentation with his poster titled “Directing the Stereochemistry of a [2+2] Photoreaction within the Organic Solid State by Template Switching.” His work was recognized at the post-conference banquet, where he was presented with $100.
In his presentation, Zurfluh-Cunningham shared his research on how varying the template will control the stereochemistry of the photoproduct. If it sounds complicated, it’s because it is. But Zurfluh-Cunningham has a helpful analogy on hand: think of the reactant – the substance the researcher is trying to alter with the templates – as a cup of water.
“If you have a cup of water and heat it up,” he explained, “the water reacts one way by evaporating. However, if you freeze that cup, the water reacts a different way by turning into ice. It’s still the same substance, just in a different form depending on what you applied to it.”
Dr. Ryan Groeneman
The results of his research are the fruit of collaborative efforts between he and Dr. Ryan Groeneman – efforts which Zurfluh-Cunningham describes as “mostly hands-on and experience oriented.” What he and Dr. Groeneman can accomplish together, he said, is greater than what either could do alone.
“The benefits of this type of collaboration is that we can do exceptional research,” he said. “When a professor works alone, he is limiting the amount of research he can accomplish in a given period of time. When a student works alone, they are limiting the type of research they can do due to their inexperience. However, when the two work together, there is more manpower to get work accomplished, and more knowledge and experience to keep the projects moving along.”
Dr. Groeneman said he is proud of the work his students have done and proud of their efforts to share their work in a professional context like the chemistry symposium. His students, he says, value the chance to do so:
“I think they really appreciate the opportunity to present research in a conference in the area that they study, and in front of fellow researchers who are well-versed in the area.”
Zurfluh-Cunningham agrees. While MOSSCS is the third convention at which he’s presented his research, it was the first convention where he found himself surrounded by fellow researchers who work in this specialized area of chemistry.
Zach Zurfluh-Cunningham (right) and Devin Ericson with a research presentation they gave at the Midwest Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society last fall. (Read more here.)
“Because of that,” Zurfluh-Cunningham said, “many of the scientists there knew exactly what we [the student presenters] were talking about, and even gave positive feedback.”
Of course, being recognized for the quality of his research is nice, too:
“[The award] has given me value as an up-and-coming scientist. By having my name on publications, and having awards like this as proof, I am displaying my experience in research and making myself a better candidate for careers once I graduate.”
Dr. Groeneman expressed gratitude for the support of the dean’s office in helping make this year’s symposium part of his students’ Webster experience.
“Thanks to Dean Wilson’s contribution,” Dr. Groeneman said, “these students were able to afford conference registration and lodging fees for the symposium without having to dip into their own pockets.”
In fact, Zurfluh-Cunningham plans to use his $100 award money toward the cost of traveling to present at another convention in Columbia, Missouri this fall.
A student in Webster’s dual-degree program with Washington University, Zurfluh-Cunningham finished his three years at Webster this spring and will begin taking classes in Washington University’s chemical engineering program in August. Thanks to his Webster education, he feels more than prepared to make the transition:
“Not many schools give students the opportunity to do undergraduate research. The fact that I have over one and a half years of experience and three presentations under my belt is remarkable and has proven to be an immensely beneficial experience.”