Undergraduate Research and Creativity Alumni Profiles 

Valerie Fleischauer, B.S. '12

Ph.D. Candidate, University at Rochester 
Major(s): Chemistry, Physics

What research or work have you done since graduating from Buffalo State?

After graduating from Buffalo State I continued my studies in the Chemistry Ph.D. Program at the University of Rochester. I joined the Neidig Group, which focuses on using inorganic spectroscopic methods to study iron catalytic systems and the electronic structure of novel f-element complexes. Specifically, I have studied the reactive iron species and the mechanism of an alkyl-alkyl cross-coupling reaction, which utilizes iron-N-heterocyclic carbenes(NHCs). I isolated and characterized mono and bis-alkylated iron-NHC complexes using X-ray crystallography, Mössbauer spectroscopy, and electron paramagnetic resonance. I also tested their individual reactivity with substrates in the catalytic reaction to determine rates of reaction and explore new substrates for the reaction.

In addition to my thesis work, I interned at Kodak Research Labs in optical and materials characterization. I learned to use a variety of optical and physical measurement equipment to study the properties of new materials in the Research and Development Division as well as quality control for production facilities. Also, I designed and built a tool to measure the sound absorption properties of a new industrial material that was being commercialized.

Can you translate your work for the general public?

Catalytic reactions are used in the pharmaceutical industry, fuel manufacturing, and many other industrial applications. In these processes, a very small amount of a particular chemical, a catalyst, is added to make the process more efficient and ultimately more cost effective for the consumer. The problem is, many of these reactions use expensive and toxic precious metals like platinum. Recently though, the same type of chemistry is being performed with iron. This is a big deal, because iron is much more abundant, over a thousand times cheaper than these precious metals, and much less toxic to humans. Think about how many buildings in the world contain steel, which has iron in it, compared with platinum—which may make up something as small as a wedding ring. On top of all of this, iron is able to perform just as efficiently as platinum in similar chemistry, and in some cases at an even faster rate. The goal of my research is to understand just exactly why iron works so well in these catalytic reactions so that iron chemistry can ultimately replace precious metals in industry.

Since these reactions are so fast, I study them by freezing them at different times with liquid nitrogen. At over three hundred degrees below zero, reactivity stops and I can study the individual iron components at different parts of the reaction. Imagine pressing pause during the most important scene in a movie—all the key actors are frozen in place and you as the viewer can study the scene to determine just what each player is up to. Rather than deciding that one character is just about to betray their friend, in chemistry I am concerned with whether the active catalyst is being chemically changed in to something that produces unwanted products.

With this consideration in mind, I can learn the good and the bad of these new reactions with iron and use this knowledge to more intelligently design new reactions that could replace the expensive and more toxic precious metal chemistry that exists today.

Why did you decide to get involved in undergraduate research?

Lab was always my favorite part of the chemistry program at Buffalo State; I enjoyed being able to take concepts and apply them to practical use. My mentor, Professor Heo, approached me about doing summer research and it felt like an obvious choice to say "yes". I was able to continue learning about science outside of class in an applied way and get more problem-solving experience. Also, working on a long-term project helped me intelligently make the decision to continue my research education after Buffalo State.

How did your undergraduate research experience influence your career path?

My biggest take away from my undergraduate research was learning how to approach a problem and decide how to solve it in the most effective way. Designing these microwell arrays and learning about materials chemistry was a completely new field of study for me so I had to become an expert in the subject along with learning how to act as an independent scientist. Being able to approach a research problem that is outside of your comfort zone is an incredibly important skill that I have taken with me to my Ph.D. work and that will follow me through the rest of my career.

Describe the research you did and if you presented it at any professional conference, juried art exhibit, or other off-campus location.

My research at Buffalo State was in the design and development of a microwell array for the study of individual cell volume regulation using fluorescence microscopy under different solution conditions. Much of my time was involved in the design of the physical cell itself including the dimensions, material development, and assembly process. I also investigated the deposition of live cells on to the microwell to determine if this would be suitable for individual cell study. Ultimately, my research findings were presented at the Undergraduate Research Conference at Buffalo State. It was a great experience to be able to discuss my work with my peers and professors.

Undergraduate Research Mentor: Dr. Jinseok Heo