Senior Brad Musselman’s Honors Project, overseen by his advisor, Professor of Chemistry Thomas Clayton, revolves around the synthesis and characterization of metallomesogens — a complex that exhibits liquid crystalline behavior, meaning it’s in an intermediate stage between solid and liquid. He came up with the idea for the project at the end of 2013 and has been on campus every summer since studying the topic. He’ll be pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan next year.
The Knox Student: What are you studying in your Honors Project?
Brad Musselman: So basically I’m doing synthesis and characterization of those kinds of complexes and what I’m really trying to do is improve the physical properties of the material, and by physical properties I mean mostly the melting point of material, because you access the liquid crystal phase by melting a sample to a liquid crystalline phase.
Only certain materials have that capability and it depends on the material. One of the main factors that influences that is the geometry of the chemical structure, so what we’re trying to do is modify the geometry of a well-known, classic metallomesogens that has been known since the 70s and 80s, and we’re trying to decrease the melting point of it by doing somewhat simple chemistry on it by changing structure, and we’re also trying to influence the fluidity of the substance, so if you want a really good liquid crystal material, you have to have something É that’s low melting so you can access the phase by itself and it has to be very fluid.
TKS: How has your project changed since you started in 2013?
BM: At first it was just me getting used to lab. I was very young at the time so I didn’t have a lot of laboratory skills, so the first summer was really just dedicated to me learning those skills, beginning basic synthesis. [Clayton] didn’t have me doing anything difficult at first, but then it kind of progressed. So I’d say for the past year, maybe two years, is when the independent study became more intensive.
TKS: What’s shocked you the most?
BM: Research in general. I learned quickly that things do not go the way you expect them to. I feel like at least when I started out, every week my project changed. It drastically changed. Most of my stuff failed. As a scientist, a lot of your stuff fails. I’d say like 20 percent of the stuff you intend on doing actually works and the 80 percent, not so much. So the rest of your time is dedicated toward finding out what happened to the 80 percent. … So that surprised me the most. And with the specific topic, one thing we’ve been trying to do for the last 10-15 years is that in order to decrease the melting point of the general classic compounds that we’re doing — they’re very symmetric compounds Ñ so we took off that symmetry entirely by replacing some of the molecules in the complex. … What we were doing was completely new to [Clayton] and to us.
TKS: What does success look like in a project like this?
BM: I think usually we associate crystal structures with a paper, so if you get one, you get a paper from it. I think the goal for most chemists is to write a paper, to actually get published. That shows the success of your work and how it’s applicable to society. Usually if you’re able to get the crystal structure that’s new, you’re basically obligated to report it. So if I can do that, the paper would basically write itself.
TKS: What are you going to study after Knox?
BM: I want to switch gears to a different avenue of chemistry. The chemistry I’m doing now is kind of an inorganic material science and I want to switch to … green chemistry or sustainable chemistry and also catalysis.
I always liked the idea of teaching, so I will definitely explore that avenue, but definitely leaving that open as an option. Other than that, I was thinking of a government job, or something like that. … Usually you would work for a national laboratory like Los Alamos, USDA, Department of Agriculture. All those kinds of departments. That’s kind of in the back of my mind.
TKS: What’s your advice to people going into Honors?
BM: I would say you definitely have to keep a strict schedule. You should put a little bit of work or think about it every day. I think a lot of Honors students, myself included, do not do that — you get distracted by your senior year whether it’s trying to get a job, trying to get into grad school, or just pass your classes, but really if you want the least amount of stress for your honors project you need to think about it every day, whether it’s going into the lab or reading a book, or actually writing your thesis.
TKS: What’s been most rewarding?
BM: When your reaction actually works the way you expect it to. Like I said, ballpark 20 percent of these reactions actually work, so if something works the way you actually expect it to and you predict it to work exactly and all these properties are exactly as predicted, that’s really satisfying. Although I guess it can be equally satisfying if your reaction doesn’t happen that way, but you get something cool out of it. I guess that could be a lot better, and that’s happened to me quite a few times.