What They Learned: Benjamin Burke ’18

The chemistry major explored the complexities of bioinorganic chemistry to understand how some bacteria can evade the human immune system.

Chemistry major Benjamin Burke ’18 wanted to understand how nitric oxide (NO) binds to the active site of the enzyme nitric oxide reductase. So for his senior thesis, he constructed a synthetic model of the active site of an enzyme to test it.

Lots of scientists are taking all different kinds of approaches to understand how this enzyme works. My thesis was to make and use just one of several synthetic models for this one part of the enzyme’s active site,” said the pre-med student, who also graduated with a concentration in biochemistry. “The idea is that this can contribute to a larger understanding of the step-by-step chemical reaction that the bacteria are doing. Maybe someday, information from studies like mine could help researchers invent a drug that specifically blocks this site in the enzyme, which would mean the bacteria can’t evade our immune system as well. If that works, then the human immune system could kill these bacteria more efficiently  and infections could be avoided.”

In this important work, which resulted in his thesis, “Yes, There is NO Reduction: Secondary coordination sphere hydrogen bonding in a non-heme iron nitrosyl model of pathogenic nitric oxide reductase,” Burke was advised by Professor of Chemistry Rob Scarrow.

“He has really been a huge part of my academic experience at Haverford, always very helpful and encouraging,” Burke said. “He worked with me to set some research goals in the beginning, but he also let me work fairly independently to figure out how to meet those goals. One great way he helped me was by encouraging me to apply to present my research at conferences. At his suggestion, I took my research to a regional meeting and a national meeting of the American Chemical Society, as well as at the Philadelphia Inorganic Colloquium hosted at Swarthmore College. This helped me feel like part of a community of researchers, and introduced me to lots of new techniques that I could read about and implement when I got back to school.”

Next, Burke is off to Albany Medical College in Albany, NY, in the fall to continue his journey of scientific exploration that he began at Haverford.,

“I just loved being in the Haverford Chemistry Department,” he said. “I have felt so much support and encouragement from all the faculty, staff, and fellow students here. I am going to miss it so much. I worked three years as a tutor and TA for both ‘General Chemistry’ and ‘Organic Chemistry,’ and I really feel like this department is a big part of my life. I am so glad to have had the opportunity to do research here.”


What did you learn working on your thesis?
I learned lots about chemistry and nitrogen oxides and enzymes, but the biggest takeaway was a life lesson about patience and persistence. A big part of my project was building a little device called an OTTLE cell (pictured above) by embedding wires into molten plastic, and that was super hard. It took me almost a semester to get it right, and there was a lot of failure along the way. Once I finally got my method for making it right, the electric circuitry to use the device kept malfunctioning! So every step of the way was more troubleshooting, but in the end, I got it to work and give great results. Thesis taught me to stick with a problem and keep trying, no matter how discouraged you get, and how to be adaptable.

In terms of science, I definitely had to learn some new techniques on the fly. I had never really heard of electrochemistry before, but I had to pick up a working knowledge of some electrochemical techniques pretty quickly. Something else that just sort of happened was that I decided to include some computational chemistry experiments in my thesis. I had never learned much about quantum chemistry, but all of a sudden I found these experiments I could run on my chemical system. And Professor Scarrow and some other faculty members were very helpful in working with me to set up the calculations and interpret the results. Including the computational component definitely made it a stronger thesis.


“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.

Photo: An OTTLE cell, a device built by Burke to aid his research. Courtesy of Benjamin Burke ’18