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A multi-faceted success story

Northland College’s Nicholas Robertson, assistant professor of chemistry, center, instructs undergraduate researchers Tyler Klein, left, and Ryan Andersen.
Northland College’s Nicholas Robertson, assistant professor of chemistry, center, instructs undergraduate researchers Tyler Klein, left, and Ryan Andersen.

In a lead article in March, ChemistryWorld announced that a team of undergraduates working under Nicholas Robertson at Northland College in Ashland, WI, and Michael Carney at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire developed a promising new way to “unzip” waste plastics, transforming them into diols and methanol.

The Robertson/Carney team succeeded in using ruthenium-based pincer catalysts, first developed at Israel’s Weizmann Institute by David Milstein and coworkers, in conjunction with pressurized hydrogen gas to reverse polymerization.

“The pincer catalyst hydrogenates the ester-linked backbone of the polymer, unzipping it into small molecules,” noted ChemistryWorld’s Hamish Crawford.

The significance of this achievement, Crawford pointed out, is that depolymerized molecules can be purified, while polymers that have merely been recycled through melt-processing cannot be purified. Crawford noted the purified chemicals can be used in the fine and commodity chemicals sectors, “and in the manufacture of new high-quality polymers.” On the other hand, polymers that have been recycled by traditional melt-processing contain impurities that degrade their quality and limit their reuse.

But the Robertson/Carney collaboration is also a success in other ways. For one thing, it represents a triumph of the concept that undergraduate research is a highly effective way to educate and motivate the next generation of scientists.

Robertson did his undergraduate work at UW-Eau Claire, which has a nationally recognized undergraduate research program in chemistry supported by numerous grants from the Cottrell College Science Award (CCSA) program.

“Professor Carney had funding from Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) for a project that I worked on starting the summer after my freshman year,” Robertson recalled. “Research as an undergraduate opened my eyes to graduate school, which was an option I’d never before even considered. It was also a significant factor in my acceptance to graduate school.”

Robertson also noted an RCSA-funded Department Development Award in the mid-1990s helped purchase UW-Eau Claire’s original 400 MHz NMR. This device enabled him to do much of his undergraduate research, and it played a critical role in his current project.

“This shows how an initial investment in a department can have an important and far reaching impact nearly 20 years later,” Robertson said.

He said the challenges and rewards of research motivated him to provide the same experience for his students at Northland College, some of whom have already gone on to graduate school. But developing a research program was challenge in itself, because Northland is a very small school (600 students) with little in the way of high-tech infrastructure.

“Convincing reviewers that high-level research could be done at Northland was an uphill battle for me,” Robertson said.

To add to his struggle, a research group at UC-Irvine published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society on the same topic that Robertson had proposed to RCSA for funding by the CCSA program.

“Initially, this was a major setback for me because my proposal ended up not being funded as a result,” he said.

RCSA Program Director Silvia Ronco recalled, “I had total faith in Nick’s scientific skills and accomplishments. Naturally, he was disappointed about a strongly reviewed proposal that was not funded. I said to him: ‘We can’t change the past, but you can write a new proposal that is as strong as the first one.’ And he did!”

Ronco said she was thrilled to be able to call Robertson to deliver the good news that his second attempt had received funding.

“I learned very quickly that talking with program officers can save a lot of time and increase odds of success,” Robertson said.

In hindsight, Robertson said, the UC-Irvine publication was a blessing in disguise.

“Their work involved a tremendous amount of screening and optimization that likely would have taken years for us to accomplish at a school like Northland,” he said. “So I was able to carve out a small niche using some aspects of the system they developed and apply it to a different system. This enabled us to obtain great results much faster than we would have otherwise been able to, which we were able to publish in Macromolecular Rapid Communications.”

This publication showed that high-level undergraduate research was possible at Northland College, and paved the way for Robertson’s successful proposals to RCSA and the ACS Petroleum Research Fund.

“So really, I’ve benefited from RCSA grants in three ways,” Robertson said. “I’ve benefited directly as an undergraduate, through access to instrumentation that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to, and through my current CCSA award.”  

Actually, Robertson benefited in one more way. In 1998 his doctoral mentor, Geoff Coates (chemistry, Cornell University), received an RCSA Research Innovation Award as an early career faculty to investigate synthesis of biodegradable polymers.

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