Chemistry Research Brings Insights into Classroom

Jack Steehler's year in off-campus labs leads to new technology here

The University of Tennessee
Steehler, who has taught at Roanoke College since 1988, spent the first nine months of his sabbatical at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Thanks to a Roanoke grant and the National Science Foundation-funded Research Sites for Educators in Chemistry program at UTK, he focused on research and did a little teaching. Steehler spent the bulk of his time there - and later at Procter & Gamble labs in Mason, Ohio - pursuing his primary research interest: analyzing chemicals on surfaces using a variety of optical spectroscopies.

At UTK, he undertook several projects in the area of Raman Spectroscopy, a technique with which he was previously unfamiliar. Some of his efforts included:

  • Comparing continuous wave lasers and pulsed lasers as excitation sources for Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy or SERS.
  • Measuring the reflectance/extinction spectra of surface systems of interest for SERS studies.
  • Developing a wide field Raman imaging system.

Insights Beyond the Lab
Steehler appreciated the opportunity to work in a setting with expensive instrumentation and to see how UTK faculty approached research. But he says he left with a heightened appreciation for the primary focus on teaching at Roanoke and the ongoing interaction with students he enjoys both in and out of the classroom and the laboratory. "I like the Roanoke model better," he says.

A strong student himself, Steehler is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar who earned his B.S. in biochemistry at Ohio State University and his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A two-time recipient of the Roanoke College Faculty Scholar Award, the Elmhurst, Illinois, native also has participated in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Summer Institute in Analytical Chemistry.

At Procter & Gamble
"Research has a different purpose in an industrial setting," Steehler says, "as most research projects are undertaken to enhance the economic well being of the company." However, Procter & Gamble does allow scientists to spend 10 percent of their time on "personal projects." "The researchers get to learn new techniques and explore new areas, even though it's not yet obvious how the new discoveries will be used in the company," he says.

At the Healthcare Research Center of Procter & Gamble, Steehler worked on an exploratory project that got him familiar with yet another technique for analyzing chemicals on surfaces. "My work at P & G centered on the development of surface plasmon resonance spectroscopy (SPR) as a useful tool for monitoring changes at the surface of model mineral surfaces. These mineral surfaces mimic the surface of teeth and provide a model for looking at mineralization processes at tooth surfaces," he says.

Surface plasmon resonance spectroscopy is widely used in biochemistry to monitor binding events involving biomolecules at surfaces, such as the binding of a drug to a receptor in a membrane surface or binding of an antigen to an antibody on an immunoassay surface. Steehler's P & G project involved constructing and characterizing a SPR spectrometer, he says. Mineral surfaces were then grown and monitored by SPR. Future studies will involve challenging those mineral surfaces with various chemical solutions, monitoring demineralization and remineralization.

At the same time, Steehler was able to observe the practical research P & G undertakes on an ongoing basis with employees. "You could see, for example, employees brushing their teeth with a new toothpaste and not always liking it!" he says, chuckling.

Insights (and Instrumentation) for the Classroom
"Because of my P & G experience, I can better convey to students what it's like to conduct research in an industrial setting. It's all about the products, trade secrets, patent protection and legal documentation."

Moreover, Steehler supervised the building of a surface plasmon resonance spectrometer at Roanoke. Instead of how acid in the mouth affects teeth surfaces, though, he and his students are studying other issues, such as how acid rain affects building materials.

Inspired by his sabbatical, the professor also oversaw the purchase of a Raman Spectrometer for both teaching and research at Roanoke.

"See it, Do it, Learn it, Use it"
"Roanoke has more instrumentation for student use than most colleges our size," Steehler says, "and our students learn to become power users over their four years. At a large university, maybe three out of 50 undergraduate students get involved in actual research, whereas at Roanoke, every one of our majors does research. Here, the emphasis in research is on helping students learn - not on the glorification of the professor. Our most expensive instrumentation is often used by the least experienced of our students."

Steehler served as the faculty advisor to Beth Tucker, then a junior whose work was supported by a Roanoke summer research grant. An excerpt from her wrap-up report ("Developing Surface Plasmon Resonance Spectroscopy Instrumentation to Monitor Substrate Deposition") indicates the depth and sophistication of student involvement: "Previous experimentation has focused on using SPR technology to monitor binding kinetics of biological molecules, such as proteins, to a gold surface. In the presented research, SPR instrumentation was developed to monitor the deposition of a self-assembled monolayer (SAM) or 11-mercaptoundecanoic acid, which can ultimately serve as a template for calcium carbonate (CaCO3) nucleation. Future research will investigate using SPR to monitor CaCO3 crystal growth and degradation during chemical challenge."

The Importance of Passion
Steehler describes his work as a calling - being called to serve as a teacher, a scholar and an advisor to students. In each of these duties, serious committed effort leads to meaningful results and rich working relationships with the students and staff of the College.

The College, in fact, has been tremendously supportive in Steehler's own calling to teaching and scholarship, he says. "I've been supported in every area: research projects, student research assistance, supplies, equipment and time."

"I've also been able to teach outside my main area of analytical chemistry. I've taught my Human Impact of Technology course for several years both as an Honors Program special-topics course and as a regular GST 400 Senior Symposium. And I've taught a May Term course titled Robots and Society."

Steehler also finds time to manage the chemistry department Web site as well as the Web site for the local high school band boosters.

"Roanoke is the place to be if you want to teach," he says.

"We have a good curriculum, good students and good instrumentation. For an analytical chemist, the scientific instruments are almost like toys to play with - and we have lots of toys to keep me happy!"

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