Colby Students Win Research Prize at International Chemistry Conference

Natural Sciences4 MIN READ

David Ramgren and Alex Roth were the only undergraduates who presented their findings in Japan

Alex Roth '24 and David Ramgren '24, shown here in their chemistry lab on campus, are studying “carbenes,” highly reactive and unstable carbon-based chemical species of interest in academia and industry.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Caitlin Penna
August 3, 2022

David Ramgren ’24 and Alex Roth ’24 received prizes for their research at the 25th International Conference on Physical Organic Chemistry (ICPOC) in Hiroshima, Japan. The pair of rising Colby juniors were the only undergraduate students among the 250 chemists who presented their research at the conference July 10-15, which was organized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

“This is a really great honor for these students, and Colby should be proud of them,” said J. Warren Merrill Professor in Chemistry and Natural History Dasan M. Thamattoor, who accompanied the students to Japan along with David Lee Phillips Postdoctoral Fellow Tom Anderson. Thamattoor and Anderson also spoke  at the conference.

“This is a prestigious meeting that has been held every other year since 1972 in different locations all over the world. It is very unusual for undergraduates to go to these kinds of events, let alone win prizes,” Thamattoor said. “Oftentimes, Nobel Prize winners – future and past – as well as other top chemists doing cutting edge research, are headliners at ICPOC.”

Ramgren and Roth won the ICPOC Prize for their research poster Allenylidenes: Photochemical Generation and Theoretical Studies. The poster, which they presented at the conference, explains their research with diagrams and text. 

The Colby students are studying “carbenes,” which are highly reactive and unstable carbon-based chemical species. Carbenes are of much interest both in academia and industry. For instance, they are used in many synthetic procedures and to prepare catalysts that are used to manufacture plastics, paints, dyes, fabrics, and other materials with practical applications. An allenylidene is a specific type of carbene found in interstellar space – which is of interest to researchers studying origins of life – as well as in flames. 

Once formed, carbenes have a transient existence, with typical lifetimes of a billionth or trillionth of a second. Because of their short lifespan, carbenes have intrigued and challenged chemists for generations, and require special techniques to study. Working in labs on the second floor of the Keyes chemistry building, the Colby students are researching ways to intercept, or capture, allenylidenes as soon as they form.

Roth, who grew up in Pennsylvania and came to Colby because of the research opportunities available, said the award validates the students’ work “and shows that what we are doing has meaning and is being recognized by the larger community of physical organic chemists. We are doing something of value that has relevance to the field itself. This award helps legitimize that.”

Ramgren, from Waterville, agreed. “It’s nice being recognized, and it brings attention to the chemistry program at Colby. At the conference, people were surprised that undergrads were doing this kind of research, so it reflects very well on Colby.”

A Presidential Scholar, Ramgren intends to continue his studies after Colby and is considering pursuing advanced degrees in chemistry or chemical engineering. Roth, a recent recipient of a Barry M. Goldwater award, plans to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry and work in academia.

“Alex and David’s experiences illustrate what’s possible when we create opportunities for talent to prove itself.”

Damon Yarnell, Dean of Student and Global Advancement

DavisConnects, which promises a unique internship, research, or global experience for every Colby student regardless of personal or financial networks, funded the trip to Japan. As Thamattoor noted, this trip wasn’t just about chemistry but a true liberal arts experience for the students. In addition to attending the conference, Alex and David were able to get to know Hiroshima and the neighboring island of Miyajima. This included a visit to the world famous Hiroshima Peace Park, a poignant memorial to the victims of the first ever atom bomb dropped on a city. Indeed, Thamattoor will be using a grant from DavisConnects’ Global Experiences Exploratory Fund to return to Hiroshima later this month with students Su Park ’24 and Khaidar Kairbek ’25 to conduct research and to discuss with his Japanese colleagues the possibility of creating a Jan Plan chemistry class in Hiroshima with students from Colby and Japan.

Scott Lamer, associate director of global experiences, said DavisConnects is dedicated to providing students with transformative experiences and to foster world-class connections. “The opportunity for these students to present at the 25th International Conference on Physical Organic Chemistry in Hiroshima does both. We are confident that this experience will help shape lifelong success for these students and those who return to Japan with Professor Thamattoor in the future.”

DavisConnects is committed to the success of each individual student, added Damon Yarnell, dean of student and global advancement. “Alex and David’s experiences illustrate what’s possible when we create opportunities for talent to prove itself,” he said. “At the same time, the DavisConnects project operates at the institutional level, as Colby builds connections between our Waterville campus and the wider world. Professor Thamattoor is a global Colby champion, an accomplished scholar-scientist who has developed relationships with top-tier labs around the world and sees the benefits of further enhancing international partnerships on behalf of the College. The DavisConnects team is thrilled to contribute.”