Cooley lab creates organic fun, organic chemistry
by Jeremy Gerlach
The chemistry in Trinity’s Cooley Lab is tough to replicate.
On any given day, the space is filled with seven Trinity undergraduates, led by chemistry professor Christina Cooley, all using organic chemistry to solve biological problems related to human health and disease. But the chemistry you notice immediately is between the lab’s people.
“One thing I love to do in our lab is really, really celebrate when good things happen,” Cooley says. “I’m known around the department for jumping up and down, screaming, hugging everyone I can find when something works.”
This type of bonding experience makes the Cooley lab a perfect example of how Trinity does undergraduate research differently. It’s not just that the lab ran two major projects this summer—one centered around using light to detect disease, and another prodrugs that activate inside the body. It’s the way that this research is being done that’s a differentiator.
This research is high-impact, high-tech, all done by undergraduates—and most important, it’s just plain fun. In the Cooley lab, students are always laughing, Alexa’s speakers are constantly running a music playlist with some absolute bops, and there’s a giant, growing wall of memes and inside jokes plastered across Cooley’s office walls.
“This is the kind of research that I’d want to carry out anywhere, with graduate students, postdocs, professional scientists,” Cooley says. “But in the Department of Chemistry here at Trinity, we’re really invested in doing the best science that we possibly could do anywhere, and we’re doing it with undergraduate students.”
The atmosphere of the Cooley lab might be lighthearted, but don’t let that fool you: Cooley’s student researchers have taken on a pair of projects with major implications for the future of human health.
The first project is related to fluorogenic polymerization. Here, the Cooley lab is working to develop methods for marking the presence of a disease through a specific polymer that exhibits fluorescence. In simple terms, scientists will be able to to use light to detect disease by seeing it glow.
The lab has spent their summer working on getting the brightest possible signal combined with the lowest possible reaction time. This science will eventually have a real-world application for developing countries or places that might not have access to expensive medical equipment. “Hopefully, we can take the special equipment out of detecting diseases,” Cooley says.
The second project involves prodrugs, or medication that is metabolized (converted within the body) into a pharmacologically active drug. Basically, it’s medicine that remains inactive until it encounters a diseased segment of the body.
Cooley’s team has worked in different ways to “cage and uncage” these molecules.
“We think these types of projects are a great way to train undergraduates to become great scientists,” Cooley says. “They can learn a lot of techniques and grow as scientists, while working on problems that could actually meaningfully impact human health and disease.”
This high-impact science is empowered by an impressive set of tools, says Joseph Anderson ’20, a chemistry major from Atascocita, Texas. As Anderson walks through the lab, he rattles off a dizzying list of technical terms and lab equipment, almost the way a host on MTV’s Cribs would describe a tricked-out living space.
There’s the rotary evaporator (rotovap), a device used in chemical laboratories for the efficient and gentle removal of solvents from samples by evaporation. The group also uses fume hoods, or transparent enclosures that allow students to work with reactions that cause vapors, dusts, gases, and fumes, and removes them through a laboratory exhaust system. The mass spectrometer (mass spec) measures the characteristics of individual molecules by converting them to ions so that they can be moved about and manipulated by external electric and magnetic fields.
But perhaps the two coolest pieces of tech are the sonicator (which uses sound waves to dissolve reagents in a solution) and the Cooley Lab light box, built by the group’s own Madeline Hopps ’20 using Trinity’s own laser cutters. The light box exposes polymer precursors to light, which starts a reaction crucial to the team’s research.
“Having this type of equipment can turn hours-long processes into minutes,” Anderson says. “This is so vital.”
And cutting-edge equipment isn’t the only type of support Trinity has for undergraduate research, Cooley adds. “At Trinity, we have a lot of very expensive instrumentation, and we have a lot of support from the Trinity community, but we also have a lot of external funding to help support our research,” she says.
As student researchers, Anderson and his classmates are all paid a summer stipend for their work in Cooley’s lab. This is funded by a wide range of grants, including sponsors such as the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, the Welch Foundation, and the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.
“This is a combination of infrastructure with great support, and it gives students access to top-notch instrumentation for an institution of Trinity’s small size,” Cooley says. “It’s a very special situation.”
BUILDING BETTER SCIENTISTS
With professional-level lab equipment and real-world research goals, Anderson says he and his classmates are getting an experience beyond that of a typical chem lab.
“Being part of research at Trinity is valuable because it exposes me to things I wouldn’t see in the classroom,” Anderson says.
In one chemistry lab, Anderson recalls failing multiple times at synthesizing a specific reagent. “I kept failing because I was using ‘textbook chemistry’, when I really needed to get into the lab and to dive into the literature,” Anderson says.
Anderson isn’t the first chem student to encounter failure, Cooley says.
“Those experiments you do in your first chem lab all have one thing in common—they tend to work on the first try,” Cooley says. “And that’s not an experience you have in research. Research can be frustrating when students are used to everything working, they come into your lab with a ton of confidence, and, ‘uh it failed!’ But I contend that students learn more through real, on-the-ground research. They learn how to problem-solve creatively, and they learn how to deal with failure, which honestly, happens frequently.”
With failure so frequent in the chemistry world, it’s important to celebrate wins, Cooley says. “Those moments can be so rare,” she explains. “To keep you going through all the hard times and the failures, you really need to just celebrate the successes.”
Just as you’d expect from this work-hard, play-hard philosophy, there’s an atmosphere of pure fun permeating every corner of Cooley’s lab. Her group started off as a team of seven Tigers ranging from first-years to seniors, with no prior experience working together. But Cooley’s unique approach brought the group together through laughs, jokes, and music.
“Our lab culture has really evolved,” Anderson says. “We’re all really good friends, even though we’re in different classes, different grade levels. Most of us met through this research. Us coming together, we play music all day, we hang out outside the lab, and you do better work with people you enjoy working with.”
Anderson and his teammates Jordan McMurry ’21, Tyler Bate ’20, Cara Dewitt ’20, Jose Dos Remedios ’22, Christopher Fan ’22, and Madeline Hopps ’20 are even connected through a Cooley Lab snapchat group.
This type of chemistry makes the wins sweeter. McMurry, for example, spent her summer preparing to test a vital, optimized reaction where all the components were assembled separately. This led to a big moment of suspense when McMurry finally put all the pieces together, wondering if the reaction would actually work.
“So we put them together,” McMurry says, “and it was very successful. I was jumping up and down, it was so exciting.”
Once student researchers get a taste of this type of success, they start building contagious confidence.
“The research I’ve worked on, from first year to senior year, has totally evolved,” Anderson says.
“At Trinity, you get to complete a project, move on to the next one, and it’s just so satisfying to see a project all the way through.”
Any number of universities can conduct high-impact research with undergraduates. But, Cooley explains, you’d be hard-pressed to find another place that teaches students that chemistry between the people in a lab can be just as powerful a tool. “We’ve bonded well,” Cooley says. “We do a lot of fun science, and work really hard, but we also have a great time together, developing relationships. And that’s one of the beautiful things about Trinity.”
Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity’s brand journalist, and was a C- chemistry student back in the day. Email him at jgerlach [at] trinity.edu, or find him on Instagram and Facebook.