‘The Best Chemist There Is’

‘The Best Chemist There Is’

MAJ. KAITIE CARTWRIGHT and Kellen Reeves ’21 observe how cobaloxime-nitrogen complexes will react when activated by light. (VMI Photo by Kelly Nye)

‘The Best Chemist There Is’

KELLEN REEVES flame dries a flask before performing a water-sensitive reaction. (VMI photo by Kelly Nye)

‘The Best Chemist There Is’

KELLEN REEVES ‘21 holds one of his reactions towards the synthesis of a novel cobaloxime complex. (VMI Photo by Kelly Nye)

New VMI Chemistry Professor Uses Nature As Inspiration

Editor’s note: The following story was written by Mary Price for Virginia Military Institute.

When she arrived on post this fall, just after completing a doctoral program at the University of Kansas, Maj. Kaitlyn “Kaitie” Cartwright wasted no time in pursuing two of her passions: taking inspiration from nature for chemical synthesis and helping undergraduates get going with hands-on research.

“We’re using nature for inspiration,” said Cartwright, assistant professor of chemistry. “Nature’s the best chemist there is.”

It’s a way of thinking and a line of research that are urgently needed. “Chemical production represents more than 25 percent of America’s gross domestic product [GDP], but many of the processes we utilize are seriously flawed as they are health hazards, environmental hazards, or are not sustainable,” Cartwright wrote in an email. “We have a lot of great chemicals that exist, but the ways we make them are very hazardous and unsustainable.”

Cartwright cited petroleum production as one of those unsustainable methods. “We can’t continue to do chemistry the way we used to before,” she commented. “This is an exciting field to be in because there’s a lot of creativity.”

This year, Cartwright and Kellen Reeves ’21 are seeking to use mimics of vitamin B12, a naturally occurring substance also known as methylcobalamin, for chemical synthesis.

“We hope to be able to exploit the chemical reactivity B12 is known for toward the synthesis of valuable feedstock chemicals,” said Cartwright.

For Reeves, who hopes to study either environmental or physical chemistry in graduate school down the road, it’s a senior capstone project.

Reeves came to VMI as a chemistry major, surprising himself and his family in the process. He admitted to hating the AP chemistry course he took in high school — so much so that his mother questioned his decision to major in the subject.

“I don’t know what drew me to [being a chemistry major],” he said. “Maybe it was that I wanted to learn more and see if I could [like it],” he said. “I think I did so poorly that I wanted to see if I could improve myself in college.”

That sink-or-swim approach seems to have produced a successful swimmer. “It’s all brand-new chemistry, stuff I haven’t done before in previous labs,” said Reeves of his work in Cartwright’s lab.

One of the critical concepts in Cartwright and Reeves’s research thus far is the synthesis and understanding of various cobaloximes, which are models of B12.

“[Reeves] started by synthesizing cobaloximes with different halogen anions — chlorine, bromine, iodine — in the axial, or top, site of the complex and is now trying to see if these halogen anions can be exchanged with nitrogen anions, which he made by making the sodium salts of amines,” said Cartwright.

“Forming the cobalt-nitrogen bond in this way has not been done before, and the ability to do so will be an important part of the reaction we are trying to develop,” she continued.

When Reeves is done in the lab, it’s time for a test — and the chemistry department’s nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer is what’s used to assess the structures of the synthesized cobaloxime complexes

The most rewarding part of Reeves’s research, he said, is “being able to run an NMR and see that I’ve actually made what I’m supposed to be making. It’s really cool to see that I actually did what I’m supposed to do.”

It’s that sense of achievement that propelled Cartwright to a career in chemistry. At Sweet Briar College, where she earned her undergraduate degree, she found a climate deeply supportive of undergraduate research, and as she applied for jobs this past spring, she looked for a school that shared that commitment.

“The research experience [at Sweet Briar] really led me to find what I was passionate about,” said Cartwright. “I wanted to work at an undergraduate institution that had that same kind of value in their research.”

Cartwright’s teaching responsibilities this fall include General Chemistry, a class that’s usually taken by rats, and Advanced Inorganic Synthesis, which is typically for 1st Class cadets. Seeing cadets at both ends of the age spectrum, Cartwright noted, is particularly rewarding, and she often tells rats about the research being conducted by their 1st Class counterparts — “One day, maybe you could do this.”

By the end of the year, Cartwright and Reeves hope to have results that they could publish in a journal, with Reeves as the lead author. Cartwright is hopeful, of course, that many more cadets will come into her lab and leave it as better scientists.

“The goal is for [cadets] to come in here and use what they’ve learned in class and take a creative approach to solving our modern problems,” she said.

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