Photo by Pete Strong
Dallas High School science teacher Lee Jones adds more solvent to a filter medium while working on an organocatalyst July 23 at the Linus Pauling Science Center of Oregon State University in Corvallis.
July 31, 2012
DALLAS — Dallas High School science teacher Lee Jones’ last experience with organic chemistry was in college. But this summer, he is conducting research that may speed the development of new prescription drugs.
Jones is part of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust Partners in Science Program, which offers grants for high school science teachers to assist scientists on basic research over two summers.
He is working with Rich Carter, a professor and chairman of the Department of Chemistry at Oregon State University. Together, they are refining the process for developing a catalyst to create amino acids used in the production of pharmaceuticals.
Jones spent the first five weeks of his “summer vacation” refreshing his memory on organic chemistry before moving on to more advanced research.
“This past week is when we’ve been pioneering things that have never been done, which is kind of exciting,” Jones said in a recent interview.
The focus of Jones’ research is a compound called “Hua Cat I,” named after Hua Yang, the researcher who first developed it with Carter. “Cat” stands for catalyst. Hua Cat is an “organocatalyst,” meaning it’s a natural compound that can be used with organic solvents to create desired reactions, making it environmentally friendly.
The problem with Hua Cat, as it is called around the lab, is that it is incredibly time-consuming to create.
“They do a lot of research that ties into this catalyst,” Jones said. “My (task) is to find a better way to make it. It’s kind of a pain. It takes like two weeks.”
Jones is developing a three-step process to create the catalyst faster. Then, after completing that task, he is hoping to create a “flow reaction” system, with which the compound can be made continuously for experiments that need to be conducted over time.
“If we can get that working — that’s the goal of the summer,” he said. “So when someone needs the catalyst, they can just set up the flow apparatus.”
Jones and Carter are coordinating the process with Synthetech, an Albany-based firm that assists in the development of new drugs.
Jones is relishing the experience of working with organic chemistry again.
He’s spending nine to 10 hours per day in the recently opened, state-of-the-art Linus Pauling Science Center at OSU. He said working with Carter and Synthetech, he is gaining experience in the research and industrial sides of science. Those are lessons he will be able to use in classes this coming school year. Jones said he is using some of the same concepts in the lab that he will teach in class.
“That is a big portion of what we talk about in AP chemistry, solubility and molecular forces,” Jones said. “That is going to tie in great with that. It’s a real-world connection.”
While Jones is excited about entering uncharted territory with the research this summer, he said it’s not groundbreaking.
“They (Carter’s team) all use Hua Cat, but they don’t really have the time to spend a couple months to find a way to make it better,” Jones said. “It’s nothing super challenging. It’s not like I’m discovering something amazing.”
Carter said Jones might be downplaying his role.
He said Hua Cat is a chiral compound, the type used in the development of the majority of drugs.
“We think it will be really useful,” Carter said. “We think it will make it (Hua Cat) cheaper and more widely used. He is going to have a real meaningful impact.”
Carter said he’s impressed with Jones’ work and believes by the end of the summer, he will be making new discoveries on his own.
“He is full of energy,” Carter said. “If I could clone him, I would.”
Jones, who wanted to work in organic chemistry when he applied for the grant, said the hours are long, but he’s happy to spend the summer on the research.
“It’s neat … the possibility of getting that one flow set up this summer and having that be my contribution to the world of chemistry,” he said.