Faculty News

Meet Dr. Alexander Gorka

Alexander GorkaWhen Dr. Alexander Gorka began college at Monmouth University, he did not originally intend to pursue a degree in Chemistry. Instead, he was enrolled as a criminal justice/forensic science major. As time went on, he came to realize that he most enjoyed the physical sciences courses and that a degree in Chemistry would provide the broadest opportunities. This was solidified through undergraduate research, where he “caught a glimpse of just how fun and rewarding it can be to challenge yourself with your own questions and ideas.” Hence, a chemistry career was born.

Upon graduation, Dr. Gorka moved to Washington, D.C., to earn his Ph.D. under the guidance of Prof. Paul Roepe at Georgetown University. Dr. Gorka then completed a Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA) Postdoctoral Fellowship with Dr. Martin Schnermann at the National Cancer Institute. In Fall 2017, Dr. Gorka joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut (UConn) as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry.

Dr. Gorka is excited to both teach and to launch his research lab at UConn: “What drew me to this career was that there’s never a dull moment. Things are fun, crazy, terrifying, and fulfilling, all at the same time.” Dr. Gorka is most looking forward to mentoring students—helping them to form their own paths and careers—and exploring new ideas in his research lab. His goal is to answer important questions, do impactful science, publish high-quality articles, present at conferences, build networks to collaborate, and “be as good a mentor to [his] students as [he] can be in helping them achieve their goals.”

Dr. Gorka is teaching the graduate Organic Reactions course this Fall and the undergraduate Organic Chemistry II course in Spring 2018. His goal for these classes is to be an effective and innovative teacher who engages students in such a way that they not only learn, but also can appreciate the applications of those fundamentals in the “real world.”

Dr. Gorka’s research group will center on the development and application of chemical tools that can probe and manipulate biological phenomena. Specifically, Gorka explains:

We are interested in various types of host-pathogen interactions in the context of the microbiome and infectious disease. We aim to develop small molecule therapeutics and fluorescent imaging agents that can be activated or deactivated in response to specific, localized stimuli like light, pH, or intracellular processes. We will utilize these tools to study how the microbiome influences cancer progression and treatment, as well as the role of quorum sensing (bacterial communication) and intracellular growth on pathogenic events and antibiotic resistance. A parallel goal is to understand if these aspects can be controlled for therapeutic benefit in a manner which avoids and/or addresses drug resistance. In addressing these and other questions, our laboratory will develop and apply methodology in organic synthesis, photochemistry, biological chemistry, and optical imaging. Our workflow will generally begin with design and synthesis of target molecules, and progress through chemical/photophysical characterization and in vitro evaluation (cell culture).

The Gorka Research Group is currently accepting new members. Dr. Gorka is looking for “highly motivated students with a positive and collaborative attitude, who always want to improve…who work hard to achieve their goals and who are passionately interested in broadening their horizons.”

Dr. Gorka is a firm believer that “most risks are worth taking” and leads by example in stepping outside of his comfort zone in teaching and research. He recommends that aspiring Chemistry graduate students “not have tunnel vision: strive for excellence across your academic, professional, and personal lives. That being said, don’t try to do everything on your own. Always ask for and consider constructive criticism: it will only make you better.” As for current UConn undergraduates, Gorka advises: “[Don’t] think that GPA and grades are all that matter. The earlier you start to realize what activities and jobs get you out of bed in the morning, the earlier you can get involved in identifying and building your path. Again, don’t be afraid to reach out. Most times, you’ll be amazed at how positive and generous the response will be! Help others help you.”

In looking towards the future, Dr. Gorka hopes to promote discussion and communication between Chemistry and other departments at UConn: “I hope to bring new research techniques and equipment to the department and broaden our research and teaching portfolio so as to continue to attract the best and brightest students, staff, and faculty.”

By Esti Nof

Synthesizing Pure Graphene, a ‘Miracle Material’

By Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

Douglas Adamson, in the lab at the Institute of Materials Science on Aug. 23, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Formed deep within the earth, stronger than steel, and thinner than a human hair. These comparisons aren’t describing a new super hero. They’re describing graphene, a substance that some experts have called “the most amazing and versatile” known to mankind.

UConn chemistry professor Doug Adamson, a member of the Polymer Program in UConn’s Institute of Materials Science, has patented a one-of-a-kind process for exfoliating this wonder material in its pure (unoxidized) form, as well as manufacturing innovative graphene nanocomposites that have potential uses in a variety of applications.

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Dr. Rebecca Quardokus Shares Her Passion For Microscopy

By Amanda Campanaro, IMS

There’s a special moment for most students when they discover what they really want to do with their major. For Rebecca Quardokus, Assistant Professor in Chemistry and associate faculty in IMS, that moment came as a junior at Grand Valley State University, Michigan, when her father sent her an article on Professor James Tour’s research at Rice University, Texas.

Dr. Quardokus, who had recently become a chemistry major, found the research fascinating. “His group had synthesized nano-sized cars with C60 fullerenes (buckyballs) for wheels, and they used scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) to image individual cars moving around on a gold surface,” Dr. Quardokus explains. “I was very excited to learn that STM, in addition to imaging, could manipulate individual atoms and molecules on the surface.” It was then she decided to attend graduate school to work with and master that “amazing technique.”

Now, Dr. Quardokus focuses her research on the engineering and reliability of molecular networks and two-dimensional materials for next-generation electronic devices. Her passion for learning STM has led her to begin a project working on developing new two-dimensional materials using surface-confined polymerization reactions.

“I use scanning tunneling microscopy, with its ability to measure individual atoms and molecules, to study the reactants and products,” she says.  “I will also study the charge and thermal transport properties of these materials.” Her group is hoping to tune specific properties for use in next-generation electronics.

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From Storrs to Shanghai, Chemistry Professor Aims to Bridge International Collaboration

By Amanda Campanaro, IMS

Yao Lin, Associate Professor of Chemistry in the Polymer Program of the Institute of Materials Science, has become very passionate about chemistry and polymer science—and about encouraging intercontinental collaboration on it. With a background in chemistry, polymer and molecular biology and a degree from Fudan University, China, Dr. Lin is interested in researching bio-inspired materials for the future and developing educational opportunities for students at home and abroad.

Dr. Lin and his lab are currently working on two projects which mimic certain natural protein polymers and complex enzymes to create synthetic, bio-inspired materials. One direction is trying to understand the cooperative folding and interactions between complex macromolecules containing synthetic polypeptides to mimic the dynamic process of protein polymerization. According to Dr. Lin, the protein polymerizations provide the filaments with excellent mechanical strengths for our muscles, our cells, and contribute to cell movement. The reason cells can move is partially because these protein fibers can grow on one end, and shrink on the other end.

The other direction involves mimicking an enzymatic structure that forms “teams” that can degrade cellulose into sugars. When bacteria develop complex structures like nano-machines that recruit six to ten different types of enzymes into a team, they can work much more effectively than individual enzymes. Dr. Lin and his group are researching whether they can replace that type of protein scaffold with synthetic polymers, and thus design the chemistry at interface between these polymers and proteins. This will allow them to recruit different engineered proteins in an organized manner.

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Professor Michael Smith Retires after 38 Years of Service

By Gabriella Reggiano

Michael Smith, professor emeritus of chemistry, on April 12, 2017. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Michael Smith, who recently retired after more than three-and-a-half decades of service, has made teaching organic chemistry to nearly 400 students seem easy. As Smith discusses his tips and tricks for managing a large class, it is difficult to picture him in any other profession. As Department Head Christian Brückner notes, “Few instructors are able to teach such large classes, and even fewer can command the stage of such large classrooms as effectively as Smith…His retirement from UConn leaves a large gap.”

But Smith did not originally imagine himself in academia. After graduating from Virginia Tech with a B.S. in Chemistry, he became an Analytical Chemist at Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., performing water analysis to keep the primary and secondary coolants of navy ships within specifications. When he realized that he wanted something different out of his career, he decided to go back to school to earn his Ph.D. Even then, he was not considering becoming a professor. “It just never entered my head that it was a possibility,” Smith recalled. “As a matter of fact, when I first went to graduate school, I had the idea to work in industry. That was really all I ever thought about. It wasn’t until I taught and I liked graduate school and I liked doing research.”

Instead, Smith entered into a long career in academia, leaving a lasting legacy as a teacher, author, and mentor at UConn. He joined the Department of Chemistry as an Assistant Professor in the fall of 1979, just two years after earning his Ph.D. Over the course of his tenure, Professor Smith has mentored 15 Ph.D. students, 13 M.S. students, and approximately 90 undergraduates. He has taught 75 semesters worth of courses, including both halves of undergraduate organic chemistry and graduate courses on organic synthesis and organic reactions. In addition to teaching at UConn, he has also taught courses at companies like Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb, as well as courses abroad in Spain and China. In the midst of all this, Dr. Smith found the time to author 25 books – which have sold in excess of over 100,000 copies.

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Electrocrystallization: Breakthrough in Gold Nanoparticle Research

http://www.alphagalileo.org/AssetViewer.aspx?AssetId=122194&CultureCode=enA research team led by Professor Flavio Maran of the University of Padova (Italy), who is also a Research Professor with the Chemistry Department at UConn, reported a breakthrough in the creation of very high quality crystals formed of gold nanoparticles via electrocrytalization. This work was done in collaboration with Professor Kari Rissanen of the University of Jyväskylä (Finland). They published their recent work in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Their recent discovery has been featured in several news outlets.

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