Themes & Projects

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity." -- Charles Mingus (American jazz musician, 1922-1979)

"Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody has thought." -- Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (1937 Nobel Prize for Medicine)

Philosophy of Research

My philosophy of research begins with a constant and deep recognition of the divine spark that gives rise to human insight and creativity. Research is, for me, an intensely sacred calling that winds through inspiration, revelation and imagination. It is not about being brilliant but about being inspired and persistent. It is also a journey of discovery as implied by the Middle French root word – recherche – ‘to go about seeking.’

I believe the attitude of a relentless researcher is eternally embedded in the Old Testament archetype of Jacob wrestling and in the New Testament text ‘Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.’ In addition, Emily Dickinson’s poem tagline, ‘This World is Not Conclusion” expresses a powerful reason ‘to go about seeking.’

My approach to research fuses, like a jazz composition, varied and sometimes discordant elements that answers the questions: when, who, what, and why - the full dimensions of scientific inquiry. It proactively seeks, promotes and provides early engagement for all God’s children in one of the most consequential adventures known to humans. The motto of BEST Early: People First, Innovate Early captures this approach.

The what and why of my research focuses on organic synthesis, novel processes and products with an eye on useful applications, such as in the biological, environmental or material sciences. While when and who is manifested in longstanding efforts towards universal adoption of early research participation (ERP), which engages students in research earlier than traditionally done. Early research seeks to nurture the natural curiosity and inventiveness of students and to develop their critical thinking skills and confidence as independent investigators or in simply approaching everyday problems in whatever career paths they choose. More details about early research is described in my 2016 book - The Power and Promise of Early Research. The first chapter Early Research: A Strategy for Inclusion and Student Success provides an excellent overview of the when and who of research. These activities and objectives are supplemented by public science initiatives, such as, YouTube videos, Public Science Announcements and LabTales published online and in the Benton Spirit Community Newspaper.

Themes - small & simple

Two underlying themes of our synthetic organic research are: small and simple.  We make small molecules using simple processes.  The 'small' focus of our research program is derived from the simple observation that most classes of important biological molecules – amino acids, nucleic acids, carbohydrates – are small molecules that contain functional groups uniquely and densely juxtaposed. Undoubtedly, this structural – regiochemical – feature of natural products is highly correlated to several important emergent molecular properties: (a) complexity, (b) diversity, (c) multivalency, (d) biochemical networks, and (e) ‘higher order’ biological functionality, that is, life as we know it.

Our research program involves novel juxtapositioning of organic functional groups in small molecules and investigation of their unique chemical, physical and biological properties. Functional groups are our molecular ‘playsets’ and their emergent properties, when juxtaposed, define our ‘rules of engagement.’

The second theme - simplicity - defines our approach to making small molecules.  A simple synthesis is reliable, atom efficient, environmentally friendly, scalable and cheap.  Consequently, addition and rearrangement organic reactions, in which all atoms of the reactants are retained in the desired product, are 'higher order tools' for small molecule synthesis.

Our fusion of 'small and simple' has led to new compounds, functional materials, synthetic processes and applications ranging from molecular sensing to hybrid biologics.  We are using this small and simple approach in a variety of research projects that include: agglutinators, fragrances, hybrid drugs, hybrid pesticides, liquid crystalline biological stains, nanoparticle linkers, novel surfactants and transfectors, new synthetic methods, and sensors.

This small and simple approach also facilitates and seamlessly integrates with our early research participation (ERP) initiatives. It is the basis for our interdisciplinary collaborations in agricultural science, antibacterials, biomedical diagnostics, cancer research, environmental sensing, materials science, and nanoscience. It engages early researchers - high school and college - who often develop projects that lead to undergraduate Honor's research theses and graduate research dissertations.

Specific Research Projects

Some specific ongoing research projects that illustrate the scope of this approach involves, but is not limited to:

(a) Electrophilic Carbonyl Additions,

(b) Chemistry of Novel alpha-Functionalized Acylals including Hybrid Acylal Drugs,

(c) Synthesis, Spectroscopy and Applications of Novel Hybrid Phenylpropanoids (e.g. flavonoids, stilbenoids, coumarins),

(d) Design and Development of Multimodal Molecular Sensors,

(e) Development of Novel Oxidative Cyclizations,

(f) Design, Synthesis and Applications of Multiphasic Surfactants,

(g) Application of Solid Bases (e.g. CaO) in Organic Synthesis, Polymer Synthesis and Biomass Conversion, and

(h) Design, Synthesis and Applications of Novel Multicationic Dyes.