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Pay-It-Forward: Mentoring Leads to Research Collaboration

The supportive mentoring practiced by faculty at Ursinus is the backdrop for a recently published paper by a chemistry professor and former Summer Fellow in  a publication that honors the professor’s mentor.

Professor mentors a student; student becomes a professor; professor mentors a student. The classic pay-it-forward scenario is behind a research paper that Professor of Chemistry Mark Ellison wrote with former Summer Fellow Matthew Chorney ’13, published in a journal that honors Ellison’s own undergraduate mentor.

The article’s publication also shows that the work done by Summer Fellows does not fade away when the eight-week Ursinus research program comes to a close. This research is from the summer of 2011. “As often happens in science, we sat on it, and waited for an opportunity,” said Ellison.

The paper, titled Reaction of folic acid with single-walled carbon nanotubes, is in an upcoming issue of Surface Science (copyright Elsevier B.V.) The issue is in honor of Ellison’s undergraduate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, John T. Yates Jr. The issue would have honored Yates in his 80th year, but he died in September, and the journal became a memorial issue.

“He had a really keen eye for detail, said Ellison, who went on to earn his Ph. D. at Stanford University. “He was always impressing on us the importance of careful techniques in the lab. He was important to my development as a scientist. He treated me the same as a graduate student. On the other hand, he expected me to answer tough questions and pushed me to be at the top of my game.”

Ursinus mentoring

Similarly, Chorney has looked to Ellison as a mentor. “I remember being a senior in high school and making my final decision about where to attend college,” he said. “I sat in on Dr. Ellison’s Gen Chem 2 class and was amazed at how he taught his students. The true investment to teach and enthusiasm for his students Dr. Ellison showed during that class helped me ultimately select Ursinus as my home for the next four years. I remember he personally came up to me before and after class and really made me feel part of his chemistry class.  I never experienced such kindness and dedication to teaching.”

Chorney was an environmental studies major who minored in biology and art history.  He is now a third year medical student at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, N.J. He credited other faculty mentors, including Leah Joseph in environmental studies and Deborah Barkun in art and art history. “All of them were supportive of my goal to attend medical school and to be the most compassionate, well-rounded physician I can be,” he said. “Mentorship at Ursinus extends well beyond the four years spent there.  Faculty are mentors for life, and will continue to be people I keep in touch with as I continue to progress through my medical training.”

Nanotube expertise

The research paper is a result of Ellison encouraging his students to pursue their interests. The topic was not Chorney’s main summer research, but a side project. Becoming interested in using carbon nanotubes for delivery of necessary drugs to hard-to-reach parts of the body, and whether the tubes are biocompatible (benign or harmful in the body), Chorney tested whether the compound folic acid, known to be good for the body, might form chemical bonds and prevent a harmful reaction.

“We don’t know as much as we need to know about toxicity,” Ellison said. “It worked out well. The folic acid chemically bonded and the nanotubes dissolved reasonably well in water, which is a good sign.”

The “official” summer research was on the Attachment of Acyclovir and Tetracycline to single-walled carbon nanotubes, and Chorney, with other students, presented the poster at the Mid-Atlantic Pharmacology Society annual meeting in the fall of 2011, an honor for undergraduates.

In a carbon nanotube, the carbon atoms arrange themselves to form a hollow tube about 10,000 times narrower than a human hair. Ellison’s research seeks to investigate and develop useful properties of carbon nanotubes, and he has published eight articles about carbon nanotubes in scientific journals.

Inspired by the memory of his late undergraduate mentor, Ellison continues to provide meaningful research experience to Ursinus undergraduates. Recently, he established a collaborative research project, funded by the National Science Foundation, with Professor Michael Strano at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to study the motion of ions through carbon nanotubes. – W. G.