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Professor Doug Klumpp and Ang Li.

Click on the photo for a larger, complete view of the team: from left, Matthew Abbott, Adam Mitton, Edward Bower, Klumpp, Li, Matthew Sheets, Robert Gallo and Andrew Weigel.


Chemistry professor’s teaching experiment
leads students to important discovery

March 2, 2009

by Tom Parisi

Great teaching often leads to discovery – as in the “aha moment” that a student experiences when a complex lesson clicks.

But in the case of an organic chemistry class taught last spring by NIU Professor Douglas Klumpp, an extraordinary teaching effort actually led to a discovery that might help fight cancer.

Several years ago, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry revised its curriculum in its upper division organic chemistry laboratories, which often have small enrollments allowing for closely supervised instruction and hands-on experience. Klumpp accepted the task of selecting a textbook for Organic Chemistry Laboratory II (CHEM 339) and identifying new laboratory experiments.

“Most organic chemistry experiments tend to be like following a cookbook – mix a little of this with a little of that, and then you get a product from the chemical reaction,” Klumpp says. “It is not much different than baking a cake.”

To make the class more interesting, Klumpp decided the last two experiments each semester would be research-oriented. Students were excited about the plan. It was a welcome change from the typical cookbook projects.

Throughout the 2006 and 2007 academic years, the research experiments produced no meaningful data or results, yet they still produced meaningful lessons. “Research experiments don’t always work,” Klumpp says. “But the students enjoyed the experience nonetheless.”

In the spring of 2008, however, students in CHEM 339 got a taste of success.

It was a small class, with just five students enrolled. They were given several types of experiments involving imidazole compounds, a type of chemical structure present in a large number of clinically important drugs.

“The students obtained great data,” says Matthew Sheets, one of two lab teaching assistants. “And most of the experiment worked.”

Sheets, Klumpp and their group of student researchers discovered a simple method for preparing diarylalkyimidazoles, a class of compounds known to be aromatase inhibitors and consequently possessing activity against certain forms of cancer. With the support of a $330,000 National Science Foundation research grant, studies of the compounds were then completed by Sheets and teaching assistant Ang Li, with guidance from Professor Klumpp.

The resulting research manuscript was published in the Feb. 12 issue of the Journal of Organic Chemistry. All students enrolled in CHEM 339 – Edward A. Bower, Andrew R. Weigel, Matthew P. Abbott, Robert M. Gallo and Adam A. Mitton – are listed as co-authors.

“It’s not something you normally see – an entire lab class listed as authors on a research paper,” Klumpp says. “We’re excited about the results. One of the sets of compounds we made certainly could be used in fighting cancer, particularly breast cancer. In the past, it was difficult to make these compounds. Our study identifies a process that makes it a lot easier.

“Lab classes can get pretty dull, unfortunately,” Klumpp adds. “So to actually work on a research project, where we needed to improvise and devise experiments as we went along, the students liked that.”

The undergraduate students also gained important real-life laboratory experience.

“It gave me the opportunity to see what practical laboratory research is like, such as the time it takes to develop an experiment, the complications that come with performing the experiment and the tools and instruments used to analyze the results,” says Robert Gallo, a senior chemistry major.

“I think that anyone can perform a book experiment,” he adds. “But when you are part of a research team that can potentially get results that have meaning in today’s world, there is much more of a sense of accomplishment.”