April 8, 2022 | NEWS | By Mika Alexander | Illustration by Emmaline Hawley

Dr. Jessica Kisunzu, associate professor of organic chemistry at Colorado College, has been awarded a $16,000 grant from Organic Synthesis Inc. to continue her research in photochemistry. The publication provides procedures for making organic compounds and includes a stipend for student collaborators.

Interested in how bonds are broken and formed, Kisunzu’s project is centered around highly reactive sets of molecules called benzynes.

“Sometimes when things are highly reactive, we can’t control them. But actually, with benzynes, we can use them in a really reliable way,” said Kisunzu.

While past studies involving benzynes have utilized other external compounds such as heat, Kisunzu aims to explore how light impacts benzyne reactions. In understanding these photochemical reactions, scientists can use the developed methods to make drug-like molecules, materials, and longer polymers.

Because of benzynes’ presence in various compounds in different areas, there are multiple directions researchers can take when working with these sets of molecules. Depending on the desired application, different external factors can be used as catalysts to get certain reactions.

“I think having a very strong, reliable set of photochemical methods will allow people who want to use benzynes to have options. The more options you have, the more applications you can often do. And so I see this as kind of an undeveloped area of benzyne chemistry,” said Kisunzu.

Along with contributing to the field of organic chemistry, student collaboration has been integral to the project’s development.

Utilizing a strong research program to develop applicable photochemical methods, Kisunzu hopes that this project will allow students to explore benzynes for years to come. The awarded grant will also cover two summers’ worth of work, which will allow for continued student-faculty collaboration.

“This is a project that I think can really be built on as I keep going in my career, but as students come in and do research during the school year and during the summer, they can also add to it,” said Kisunzu.

Benjamin Sokol ’22 started this project in 2020, and his work supported the grant proposal. In 2021 and 2022, respectively, William Abbey ’22 and Tessa Ganellen ’22 joined.

This summer, Enrique Hernandez Salcido ’24 will be supported by the Organic Synthesis Inc. grant to conduct research with Kisunzu.

To Kisunzu, student collaboration is what got the photochemical benzyne project off the ground. This alliance, paired with a strong research program, should allow for more students and scientists alike to continue exploring these chemical reactions.

“Developing a strong research program here allows me to have a foundation, to have a vision for what my research group can do, what students can do with me in the future,” said Kisunzu.

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