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Lindsay Werkmeister and Christy Haynes

Student Lindsay Werkmeister, foreground, and assistant chemistry professor Christy Haynes examine a flask of gold and silver nanoparticles made by Werkmeister. The nanoparticles may someday find uses as dyes or in sensing devices.

Why Jell-O jiggles and other mysteries, explained

New faculty member Christy Haynes gets students thinking about the chemistry of ordinary life

By Deane Morrison

February 17, 2006

As a young chemistry student at Macalester College, Christy Haynes loved the subject but was frustrated by friends' questions about how chemistry applied to their everyday lives. "Somebody once asked me how shampoo worked," says Haynes, who is now an assistant chemistry professor at the University. "Whenever people asked me how something or other worked, I couldn't answer them." As a new faculty member last fall, Haynes made sure her students had the means to deal with similar questions. She assigned her general chemistry class the task of exploring how chemical processes affect them every day. Haynes gave the class a list of topics, but students were free to choose others that interested them. Working in teams of two to five, the students researched the science behind such well-known phenomena and products as chocolate, silly putty, superglue, catnip, toothpaste, sunscreen, hydrogen fuel cells, liquid crystals, biodegradable plastics, and many more. Chemistry librarian Meghan Lafferty helped by building a Web site of sources students could visit to get started, and she also addressed the class on how to properly cite sources and avoid those of dubious integrity.

"One student said, 'Somebody not even in the class came by and asked about biodegradable polymers,'" Haynes recalls. "This was the best day of my first semester. It was so nice to walk into class after that and say, 'You guys did such a great job, and you really impressed the other faculty.'"

"She helped the students learn to spot people on the Web with an axe to grind," explains Haynes. When all the projects were done, the students displayed posters of their work in the Willey Hall atrium. Twelve chemistry faculty members judged the projects, and, of course, plenty of passersby stopped to check things out, some of them showing an interest that surprised the students. "One student said, 'Somebody not even in the class came by and asked about biodegradable polymers,'" Haynes recalls. "This was the best day of my first semester. It was so nice to walk into class after that and say, 'You guys did such a great job, and you really impressed the other faculty.'" When the students voted for their favorite poster, they chose a project on the chemistry of Jell-O (whose popularity was not hurt by the handing out of samples). After the exhibit, a member of the Jell-O team took the poster to a group of junior high students she had been tutuoring in math and science and explained to them the chemistry of gelatin. Not all the students felt the individual projects suited their learning styles, but it was a hit among the ones with test anxiety. Some told Haynes the experience had given them a sense of community within the class, and some classmates became friends and study mates as a result. All the student teams placed their findings on a Web site they called Chemepedia (named after Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia). The students weren't the only ones who learned from the experience. "I didn't know about the chemistry of silly putty, stomach acid, or super glue," says Haynes. One of the students who studied stomach acid, Lindsay Werkmeister, has joined Haynes's lab this semester as a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) student. She is involved in Haynes's research on the chemistry of nanoparticles, particularly ones between 20 and 200 nanometers in size (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) and containing atoms of both gold and silver. Solutions of the nanoparticles come in different colors, and on her first day in the lab Werkmeister created the first purple batch. "We were trying to get the whole spectrum from red to blue, and this was a big step," says Werkmeister. "If we succeed, the nanoparticles could be used as dyes--for example, in food coloring." If the nanoparticles are to be used in the human body, their toxicity must be tested, and Haynes is already planning a preliminary round of tests using cultures of immune cells from mice. The nanoparticles may also find use in sensor devices by turning color as factors such as acidity or salt in their environment change. Besides nanoscience, Haynes focuses on neurochemistry; specifically, how the messenger molecules of the nervous system--the neurotransmitters--are transported and released by neurons. Electricity on a very tiny scale plays a big role in her work, and she once brought some of her electrochemical data to the general chemistry class to show them what research in progress looks like. Haynes sees the connection to working researchers as a big plus for students at a place like the University, a sentiment Werkmeister echoes. "I love it here," she says of Haynes's lab. "I have a lot more free rein than I thought I'd have. In other [course-related] labs, everything is laid out for you. It's really exciting to be doing real research." Haynes appreciates the chemistry department's enthusiasm for innovative teaching styles such as her "everyday chemistry" idea. "This department is more progressive than many other chemistry departments in the top 50," she says. "Faculty members like Lou Pignolet and Lee Penn have been practicing nontraditional teaching methods for a long time." Asked why she chose chemistry as a career, Haynes had a down-to-earth answer. "It's amazing to me that you can, for example, take a table and understand its properties by looking at its smallest components, electrons and protons," she explains. To view explanations of everyday chemical phenomena written by Haynes's students, visit Chemepedia and click on any topic in blue. Future classes will research the red topics.