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Positive Reaction

Chemistry undergraduate Leslie Nickerson earns experience in the lab

By Tara Roberts

Leslie NickersonLeslie Nickerson’s experiment was supposed to last two weeks. More than a year later, she’s still working on it.

Nickerson, a senior chemistry major at the University of Idaho, was tasked with testing out a reaction – selecticely reducing enones to allylic alcohols using sodium borohydride and aluminum oxide— during her first semester in Jakob Magolan’s lab. Magolan, an assistant professor of chemistry, had speculated the reduction might work, but didn’t realize it would work incredibly well.

Now, Nickerson is focused on optimizing and analyzing the process before publishing the results.

“It’s really exciting to me to be able to do something in a way no one’s ever done before,” says Nickerson, who is from Middleton, Idaho.

Allylic alcohols are found in many medications such as codeine, used in cough syrups and pain medications, and Crestor, a cholesterol regulator. They can be produced from enones or enols by selective reduction using cerium trichloride as an additive, but cerium trichloride presents some problems. It’s expensive, at about $20 a gram, and environmentally hazardous. The reduction also can leave behind cerium salts, which are toxic to humans if injected.

Nickerson’s aluminum oxide additive has no such dangers.

“My reaction is a lot cheaper, and it’s a lot greener,” she says. “It’s very safe.”

Aluminum oxide is removed by simple filtration to yield the final product, and could potentially be washed and reused.

Nickerson says her experience in Magolan’s lab has been useful to her as a scientist and a student. She plans to apply for graduate school soon, and she expects her research experience will make her an excellent candidate.

Nickerson’s experience with the Idaho INBRE program also enhanced her education and prepared her for continued studies. INBRE – which stands for IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence – is a federally funded program designed to increase Idaho’s competitiveness for biomedical research grants. It offers a summer fellowship program, through which Nickerson was able to continue her work in Magolan’s lab during summer 2013.

“This is kind of a unique university in the way they encourage so much undergraduate research,” says Nickerson, who works with multiple other undergraduates in Magolan’s lab. “We’re prepared. We know the way labs are run. It really gives us the upper hand as far as getting into graduate schools and knowing what to do when we get there.”