New Compound Helps Activate Cancer-Fighting T Cells

By Colin Poitras, UConn Communications

An illustration showing interactions between components of the AH10-7 compound (yellow), an immune system antigen-presenting cell (gray), and an invariant natural killer T cell (green and blue) that spark activation of iNKT cells in ‘humanized’ mice. (Image courtesy of José Gascón/UConn)
Researchers Amy Howell and José Gascón of the chemistry department discuss a molecular simulation on a laptop monitor in the academic wing of the Chemistry Building. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells are powerful weapons our body’s immune systems count on to fight infection and combat diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. Finding ways to spark these potent cells into action could lead to more effective cancer treatments and vaccines.

While several chemical compounds have shown promise stimulating iNKT cells in mice, their ability to activate human iNKT cells has been limited.

Now, an international team of top immunologists, molecular biologists, and chemists led by University of Connecticut chemistry professor Amy Howell reports in Cell Chemical Biology the creation of a new compound that appears to have the properties researchers have been looking for.

The compound – a modified version of an earlier synthesized ligand – is highly effective in activating human iNKT cells. It is also selective – encouraging iNKT cells to release a specific set of proteins known as Th1 cytokines, which stimulate anti-tumor immunity.

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New Method Unearths Climate Data from Ancient Soils

Hren By Elaina Hancock, UConn Communications

In Scientific Reports today, UConn researchers report a novel approach to reconstructing ancient climates using analyses of organic compounds in sediments and soils.

This method was developed by former UConn postdoctoral scientist Yvette Eley (now in the Department of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, U.K.) and assistant professor Michael Hren in the UConn Center for Integrative Geosciences. Their new approach makes use of organic compounds found in the waxy, lipid-rich cuticle of plants. These waxy surfaces are critical to plant survival, as they minimize water loss and provide protection from factors such as UV radiation.

The distribution of organic compounds in leaf waxes records information about their growing environment. For instance, when confronted with stressful conditions such as shortage of water, plants can respond by changing the distribution of organic compounds in their leaf wax to combat water loss and improve their chances of survival. Various environmental parameters can therefore result in plants with different distributions of lipids, and these profiles can reveal a lot about the climate those plants were growing in.

Once incorporated into the soil, these organic compounds can be preserved over tens to hundreds of millions of years, offering the potential to quantify changes to regional and global moisture budgets on geologic timescales. The leaf wax lipids are extracted from soils and sediments, which are complex mixtures containing, among many other components, weathered rock, minerals, and decayed plant materials that have accumulated over time.

“Looking at soil today, you’re observing the integrated history of all the plant matter that went into forming that soil over the course of hundreds to thousands of years,” says Hren.

In the past, various methods have been used to give a snapshot of environmental conditions at a point in time, such as analyzing stable isotopes in mammal bones and teeth, or looking at the chemistry of ice cores. However, all methods have limits to the information they can provide.

Eley and Hren investigated the relationship between leaf wax biomarker profiles and modern climate in a series of soils from North and Central America. A clear relationship began to emerge regarding leaf wax lipid distribution profiles and atmospheric moisture, suggesting that it is possible to use the distribution of leaf wax lipids to identify changes in moisture availability in the past.

This new approach represents a significant addition to the paleoclimate scientist’s toolkit, as atmospheric moisture is a parameter that has been challenging to estimate over long periods of Earth history, until now.

With today’s increasing CO2 levels, scientists know there is going to be climate change in the future, but it has not been clear how that may affect regional moisture patterns.

“One of the huge gaps in the past is we didn’t have great quantitative records of moisture,” says Hren. “We’re now managing to get a really nice glimpse of the whole ecosystem and how it’s responding.”

As the researchers focus on the biomarker profiles of soils, they are capturing an integrated chemical signature of a whole ecosystem preserved in ancient soils and sediments.

Hren says they found that the distribution of organic compounds preserved in soils of these ecosystems seems to be strongly related not just to relative humidity, but also to the difference between how much water is in an air mass and how much the air mass can hold, or what is known as the vapor pressure deficit.

Once the researchers established this relationship using modern data, they applied the method to sediments dating back to between 16.5 and 12.4 million years from a well studied area in Spain. They were able to reconcile their lipid-based reconstruction of vapor pressure deficit with existing stable isotope and fossil data for the area, highlighting the utility of this new tool.

Says Eley, “The hope is that we’ll be able to use this approach to tackle key questions about changing moisture availability over time.”

Past, present, and future

Hren and Eley are now applying this method to a range of other ancient terrestrial sediments, to investigate the relationship between changes in past climate and atmospheric moisture. They hope to use insights from these studies, which reconstruct temperature and moisture availability over many millions of years of Earth’s history, to advance understanding of the global changes in environmental conditions anticipated in the coming decades.

“By looking into the past, we’re trying to understand the potential for future change,” says Hren. “This is a powerful tool as we move forward.”

The ultimate hope is that data generated by this new leaf wax biomarker proxy will improve knowledge of past climate responses to CO2, and fill in the gaps – like missing pieces of a puzzle – in spatial reconstructions of paleoclimate during past warm periods of earth history. This in turn will feed into climate predictions of the long-term future of our planet.

This work was supported by a National Science Foundation grant NSF-EAR-1338256.

2018 CT Middle School Science Bowl

2018 Science Bowl Volunteers

On Saturday, February 24, 2018, the Connecticut Regional Middle School Science Bowl event welcomed approximately 200 students and coaches—and their family members—to UConn for a day of learning and friendly competition. The Middle School Science Bowl is a fast-paced, question-and-answer-style event that emphasizes the importance of STEM education. This year, 32 teams from 24 different middle schools throughout Connecticut participated in the Science Bowl competition where they answered questions in the fields of Life Science, Physical Science, Earth and Space Science, Energy, and Mathematics. It is through the Science Bowl that students are able to engage in a challenging academic competition with peers that share a similar passion for science.

The Connecticut Middle School Science Bowl is hosted by the UConn Chemistry Department and organized by Assistant Professor in Residence Joe DePasquale, Adjunct Professor Niluka Wasalathanthri, and Chemistry staff Jillian Chambers and Ashley Orcutt. This event would not be possible without the assistance of approximately 95 volunteers who donate their time to prepare for and participate in this exciting competition. Among the volunteers are undergraduate students, graduate students, alumni, and local high school students. Many of the volunteers are STEM-based majors who share the same affinity and aptitude for science as the young competitors.

In addition to the quiz aspect of the competition, the competitors and their families were invited to take part in various science demonstrations throughout the afternoon. These activities—ranging from "Fun with Liquid Nitrogen" to extracting DNA from a strawberry—exhibited principals of Chemistry and Engineering in a fun and interactive way. Science demo volunteers included Chemistry graduate students, Chemistry undergraduate students, members of the UConn Chem Club, and members of UConn iGEM. 

Participants and their families also delighted in the appearance of special guest Jonathan the Husky, UConn's official mascot. Jonathan met with the teams and toured the event's Science Demos. Jonathan had a wonderful day meeting with the student participants, the Science Bowl volunteers, and learning more about science through the various fun activities!

The Department of Chemistry would like to thank the UConn Office of the Provost, the UConn College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, and the UConn Institute of Materials Science for their support. The Department would also like to thank the UConn School of Engineering Diversity & Outreach Center, Connecticut Science Center, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Subway Restaurant for their contributions to this event as well.

The top teams of the day were:

First Place: Irving A. Robbins Middle School (Farmington, CT)
Second Place: Whisconier Middle School (Brookfield, CT)
Semi-Finalist: Bedford Middle School (Westport, CT)
Semi-Finalist: Mansfield Middle School (Mansfield, CT)

Irving A. Robbins Middle School will represent Connecticut’s middle schools at the National Science Bowl competition in Washington, D.C. April 26 – 30.

The National Science Bowl is a nationwide academic competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. “The National Science Bowl® continues to be one of the premier academic competitions across the country and prepares America’s students for future successes in some of the world’s fastest growing fields in science, technology, and engineering,” said Dr. J. Stephen Binkley, Acting Director of the Department’s Office of Science, which sponsors the nationwide competition, now in its 27th year. “Each year the DOE Office of Science provides this unique opportunity, and I am honored to congratulate all the competitors who are advancing to the national finals, where they will continue to showcase their talents as top students in math and science.” More than 14,000 students compete in the NSB each year.

More information can be found on the CT Middle School Science Bowl website and the National Science Bowl website.

Event photos (courtesy of Dhanuka Wasalathanthri, UConn Alumnus): Flickr | Facebook

Seeking Academic Advisor 1 (UCP 5)


The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences invites applications for a full time, twelve-month position of Academic Advisor. Under the general supervision of the CLAS Academic Services Center and the Chemistry Department Head /Associate Head, the successful candidate will advise undergraduate students on obtaining a BA or BS degree in Chemistry, and lead the departmental undergraduate program activities. This position will also provide administrative support in the Chemistry Department’s main office. Continue reading

Seeking Financial Assistant 1 (UCP 1)


The Department of Chemistry, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, seeks qualified applicants for the position of Financial Assistant 1 (UCP 1).  The Department of Chemistry’s staff provides quality professional services to a diverse and thriving community of students and faculty engaged in innovative research and academic excellence.  Under the supervision of the Program Coordinator and the CLAS Business Services Center, the incumbent will process and maintain financial transactions and records for the Department of Chemistry. Continue reading

Chemistry Professor Nationally Recognized for Inventions

By Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

Altug Poyraz, left, a graduate student, with Steven Suib, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. According to Suib, some of the greatest benefits of being an academic inventor are the opportunities it allows him to provide to his students, many of whom will work in industry after graduating from UConn. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)

Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Steven L. Suib has some advice for early career faculty and student researchers who are interested in inventing. Given that Suib was recently named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), it would probably be smart to grab a pencil.

“Ask a lot of questions, know the literature, don’t be afraid to move on from ideas that just aren’t working. But above all, keep an open mind and work with other people,” offered Suib.

Throughout his nearly 40-year research career, Suib has lived by these words. As a preeminent expert in solid state chemistry and the synthesis of novel materials with a strong environmental focus, his work has produced numerous discoveries with a variety of applications in several industry sectors.

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Tailoring Treatment to Combat Diseased Cells at the Genetic Level

By Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

Jessica Rouge, Assistant Professor talking with Ph.D. student Josh Santiana in her research lab in the Chemistry building on Nov. 29, 2017. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

A new drug delivery system that uses a synthetic-biological hybrid nanocapsule could provide a smart technology for targeted treatment of a variety of serious diseases at the genetic level.

The hybrid offers a way to correct diseased cells at the genetic level – while at the same time leaving healthy cells alone – to increase the effectiveness of treatments and reduce unwanted side effects.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all delivery system,” says Jessica Rouge, assistant professor of chemistry at UConn, and author of a new paper on the technology in Bioconjugate Chemistry. “The beauty of this system is that it is programmable, modular, and has the ability to rapidly integrate diverse peptide sequences. It can be tailored to combat new disease challenges as they emerge.”

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UConn Chemistry in Motion at Science Salon Junior Event

UConn Chemistry lecturer Dr. Clyde Cady directed several dozen budding scientists through two interactive demonstrations of “Electrons in Motion” during last month’s Science Salon Junior event. Science Salon Junior, held during UConn’s 2017 Family Weekend, featured exciting experiments for children ages 5-12. Throughout the event, Cady and Greg Bernard, CLAS Director of Alumni Relations, led a team of chemists that included Associate Professor Dr. Mark Peczuh, graduate students Svetlana Gelpi and Xudong Wang, and undergraduate student Shahan Kamal. In one demonstration, Salon Junior participants electroplated zinc onto copper pennies and then “brassed” them by heating them in a flame. In the other demonstration, students prepared solutions and observed the phosphorescence of a ruthenium (III) bipyridine complex. As the lights went out to observe the phosphorescence, one participant quipped, “Now I see the light!” Cady’s perspective on the event is equally profound, reflecting, “I hope we illuminated the power of chemistry for our young scientists and polished their interest in STEM so that it was just as bright and shiny as the brass pennies we made.”

These fun, kid-friendly demonstrations were part of the inaugural Science Salon Junior program, an off-shoot of UConn’s successful Science Salon events.


Photos courtesy of the UConn Foundation & Dr. Mark Peczuh

Professor Flavio Maran Wins Baizer Award

Flavio MaranProfessor Flavio Maran, who leads the Molecular Electrochemistry and Nanosystem Group at the University of Padova and is a Research Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Connecticut, is the new winner of the Manuel M. Baizer Award, awarded by the Electrochemical Society (ECS), which is the largest electrochemical society. The Baizer Award (Manuel Baizer was a great chemist and foremost internationally recognized authority in organic electrosynthesis) was established in 1992 to recognize individuals for their outstanding scientific achievements in the electrochemistry of organics and organometallic compounds, carbon-based polymers and biomass, whether fundamental or applied, and including but not limited to synthesis, mechanistic studies, engineering of processes, electrocatalysis, devices such as sensors, pollution control, and separation/recovery. Prof. Maran will give his Award Lecture in May 2018, at the 233rd ECS Meeting in Seattle, Washington.

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