TU students "engineer" a summer of research through Dreyfus grant

By Megan Bradshaw on July 16, 2018

Juniors Ian Gilbert and Kameron Langford are spending their summers in their labs thanks to a research grant from the Dreyfus Foundation

Ian Gilbert
Ian Gilbert is working on synthesizing the natural compound ineariifolianone, using the inexpensive, commercially available starting reagent valencene. 

Towson University juniors Ian Gilbert and Kameron Langford took circuitous routes to their research projects, but thanks to a research stipend included in the grant the Jess & Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics received from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the students will be able to spend all summer working on them.

Related: TU one of five nationally to receive Dreyfus Foundation grant 

Ian Gilbert

Balancing areas of life is something chemistry major Ian Gilbert is very familiar with.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in American history at University of Maryland, College Park, Gilbert worked for the U.S. State Department for a year recruiting special agents to defend United States embassies around the work, a job he called “extremely interesting but basically glorified HR work.”

He decided to pursue an old dream, becoming a physician scientist. He first felt drawn to medicine when his best friend from high school was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 17, something Gilbert said was a formative experience for him.

Like Langford, Gilbert prefers applied mathematics, which is part of what drove him to organic chemistry.

“Organic chemists make things. I love that,” he said. “You have an end product, like organic compounds that nobody has made in the history of never. I think structures are beautiful. It’s like architecture; it’s a process. Seeing it come to fruition after a year is amazing to see.”

His project aims to develop a practical synthetic route for the natural compound ineariifolianone, using the inexpensive, commercially available starting reagent valencene. Gilbert hopes to submit it to Eli Lilly’s Open Innovation Drug Discovery Program, which will determine if there is any biological activity of sufficient interest to warrant further investigation.

“This chemistry department has the opportunities if you want to pursue them,” he said. “The professors want to get to know you. They want you to be interested in their lives’ work. If you express the interest, they light up. The upper-level undergrads work directly with the professors, run the instruments and interpret the data.”

Gilbert works directly with assistant professor Keith Reber.

“Dr. Reber is my favorite teacher, and I’ve had more college classes than I’d like to admit,” Gilbert said. “He was the first teacher who really made me feel like I could go into science and succeed. He’s encouraging and lets me think for myself. He’s pushed me to apply for things that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do on my own. He taught me it’s never too late to figure out what you want to pursue and study it.”

Kameron Langford

Langford considered engineering in high school but disliked the physical side of modeling and working with pure mathematics. When he came to TU, he enrolled in a freshman chemistry lab that introduced him to assistant professor Mary Sajini Devadas and the importance of undergraduate research. The physics major attended a meeting Devadas held for students who were considering joining her research group.

“I went to the first meeting and something that resonated with me was one of the group members saying, ‘This isn’t a procedural thing. There’s no answer set. You’re going to have to discover it on your own,’” Langford said. 

Kameron Langford in the lab
Kameron Langford uses an optical trapping system to hold nanoscale objects in a single spot, so they can be observed without the influences of the environment.

In his current research, Langford and lab partner Tim Szekerczes use an optical trapping system designed from a single 1,064 nm wavelength continuous wave laser and optical equipment to trap nanoscale objects in a single spot, so they can be observed without the influences of the environment.

“We started with a blank table and we’ve built the trap from scratch,” Langford said. “This project really is all mine and Tim’s. Going from nothing to being able to trap particles and even expand the project is really cool.”

Langford said he isn't sure if he’ll work with nanoparticles in the future or switch to studying quantum mechanics. Either way, he understands the importance of having a research mentor now.

“If you have a close relationship with an expert, you can get a pretty quick answer or professional opinion to the problem you’re having,” he said. “Research teaches you about responsibility and how to balance areas of your life.”

The Jean Dreyfus Lectureship awards provide a grant to bring a leading researcher to a primarily undergraduate institution to give public and technical lectures in the chemical sciences and to support two undergraduates in summer research. Devadas and Reber are TU's primary investigators for this grant.