Virtual collaboration with alumna opens up new avenues for chemistry students

Chemistry students interacting via Zoom

Carrie Donley ’98, director of the Chapel Hill Analytical and Nanofabrication Laboratory at the University of North Carolina (UNC), interacted with students in the Chemistry 342 Advanced Laboratory course Wednesday, April 7. The course is taught by Professor of Chemistry Colleen Byron, and the collaboration was supported by a $1,000 grant through the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network “Kickstarter Program.”

One of the laboratory projects in the course is to identify in geology terms a mineral from a sample found in nature. To speculate what the unknown mineral is, students first use common geological techniques as described by the author of the laboratory, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Dean Katahira.

“To up the game, we can perform X-ray diffraction instrumental techniques on these samples,” Byron says. “Different minerals with different chemical compositions will diffract X-rays in unique enough ways that we can then match the X-ray ‘fingerprint’ with known X-rays pattern in online databases to identify the what the likely mineral is.”

Last week, Donley received separate mineral samples from each of the six students in the course and worked with the UNC Geology Department to properly pulverize the samples to a powder needed to run her characterization study.

During Wednesday’s Zoom talk, she took the students through this X-ray experimentation, travelling to the lab with her using her phone camera and watching her load a sample into the instrument. She showed various parts of the instrument then “took” the students back to her office to run the instrument remotely.

She demonstrated how to optimize the signal generation from the sample surface, shared the raw data she previously had obtained from the student samples and discussed their sample with each student, “and we set the parameters of the online database search to make sure the raw data was in a form that would most likely produce quality search results,” Byron says. Each student was able to interact individually with Donley.

Donley works with a number of research groups across the UNC campus, and she trains post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, professors and undergraduates to use the instrumentation that she is in charge of.