Following in the footsteps of mentor Dave Patterson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, chemistry major Lincoln Satterthwaite ’18 chose to write his thesis on the process of detecting molecules that are distinguished by their “chirality,” or their inability to be superimposed onto their mirror image.
Known to non-scientists as “handedness,” some chiral objects commonly encountered in everyday life include household staples like scissors, as well as sports gear such as golf clubs. Satterthwaite, however, wasn’t interested in anything so large.
“My project was [focused on] extending something Dave had already done in detecting regular chiral molecules to an even more subtle kind of molecular chirality,” he says.
To do this, though, Satterthwaite had to overcome a variety of practical obstacles, including using technology so sophisticated that it’s practically nonexistent.
“Dave originally proposed the experiments using the instrument in his lab to conduct them,” Satterthwaite says. “There are only three or four of these instruments in the world, as all of them are totally custom built with all of the electronics coming from a mish-mash of different manufacturers and so on.”
With the help of Patterson and a local advisor, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Rob Broadrup, Satterthwaite was able to complete his thesis, “Synthesis and Chiral Rotational Spectroscopy of Chiral Isotopologues,” on time. And the difficulty of the research hasn’t deterred him from pursuing a career in the field, either: As of now, he’s back at work in Patterson’s lab, continuing experiments in the same vein.
What did you learn working on your thesis?
I’ve learned so much from working on this thesis, it’s difficult to pare it down. There are the things that I’ve learned that are directly relevant to my thesis, like the rotational spectroscopy specific theory, experimental design, and so forth, but there are also things that I learned in core classes that I’m just now seeing the use of in this thesis (lots of stuff from “Quantum Chemistry” comes to mind, as well as “Waves and Oscillations” in the Physics Department). Then there’s the learning I’ve done about how to write a paper, and work with the collaborators on that paper, which ranges from how to search for what I want to cite, how to use the typesetting language LaTeX, and how to work with the collaborators on that paper. Probably the biggest takeaway is non-scientific: if you want good collaborators to work with you again, you have to be a good collaborator yourself. This means working harder, a lot harder, than the bare minimum for a project. Put out good work, and put out good work often.
What are the implications of your thesis research?
There are plenty of implications for this research, some a little more dreamy than others. Basically, all of organic chemistry is one big mixture analysis problem: I’ve done a reaction, and I desperately want to know what I’ve made. The best possible mixture analyzer would tell you unambiguously the structure of the molecule, including handedness, or chirality, how much of it there is, what state it’s in or the distribution of states, and so forth. This rotational spectroscopy technique basically does that, but in a fairly unrefined way that requires a lot of troubleshooting. The technology and technique is all there, but the experience is very much not user-friendly. A fast and specific mixture analyzer is essentially the pharmaceutical and industrial chemical industry’s dream.The slightly more dreamy version of this has to do with the homochirality of life. There are a few papers out there that make the postulation that all of our DNA twists one way because of slight excesses of one set of isotopically chiral molecules over the other handedness on meteors. This slight excess of one chirality then theoretically causes a chain reaction that tilts the balance of molecules on earth towards one chirality, from which life forms. Since this rotational spectroscopy unit can detect this kind of chirality, it could be useful in testing these hypotheses.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.
Photo: Chemistry major Lincoln Satterthwaite ’18 wrote his senior thesis on chiral molecules. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Satterthwaite ’18.