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Chemistry Students Caught Off Guard When Poster Nets Prize
students hold poster

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Adam Baird and Katherine Kross display award-winning poster.

A trip to the 230th American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition in Washington, D.C., in late August was meant to be a learning experience for a pair of JMU chemistry majors.

The trip was that and much more, as senior Adam Baird and sophomore Katherine Kross won honors for a poster presentation of their research — a result neither they nor their teacher, Dr. Kathryn Layman, thought possible.

Kross said she didn't even know awards were given in the category they presented in. "It was a big privilege to be welcomed, and everyone was asking us questions and seemed curious," she said.

Layman, an assistant professor of chemistry, had told Baird that awards were presented, but cautioned him not to get his hopes up. The majority of presenters would be graduate students from research institutions and, while Baird and Kross' poster looked good, their research — a study of carbon monoxide absorption on a ruthenium catalyst in the presence of water — wasn't exactly groundbreaking.

"I told Adam, 'It's interesting, but it's not rocket science," Layman said. "It's not going to shock anybody and it's our first year. We don't have much of a story to tell.'"

When the awards presentation began, the names of the two JMU undergraduates were called first. "I was shocked," Baird said, adding that he wondered if there wasn't a mistake.

For their efforts, Baird and Kross each won $125 and were invited to a luncheon in honor of symposium coordinators, invited speakers and poster winners.

"This is quite an accomplishment considering they have only been working on this project for nine or 10 months and most of the time was spent assembling the flow cell and learning how to spread our sample for collecting IR (infrared) data," Layman said.

Kross began working on the research as a freshman last November. Baird joined the project in January. The data collection didn't begin until summer, when the equipment for doing the research was finally ready. Baird and Kross put the poster together in the two weeks before the ACS meeting, completing it just days ahead of the event.

Next step: Find the why

The two undergraduates do not plan to sit on their laurels.

"We still have plenty to do," Kross said, noting the research will continue. Their work so far has provided an understanding of the project and "where we need to go with it, what other instruments we need to gather, what direction we're going in."

Baird said the research has shown reactions occurring and the next step is to find out why they're occurring. "Right now we just know that something's going on and maybe this species of CO is changing to this, so we don't know really what's causing that. It's creating more and more questions."

The research could lead to improvements in industrial applications, such as fuel-cell technology and groundwater treatment, Baird said, though the project was not designed with any particular application in mind.

Layman said similar research has been done, but not with a ruthenium catalyst in water. "We're the first group that did it with an actual water background…where we had the catalyst actually hydrated," she said. The results are consistent with what has been shown in gas-based research, "but there's also enough discrepancy from the gas-based literature to merit our studies being worthwhile."

Baird and Kross presented their research again in October at the eighth annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Baltimore County