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Nell’s Students Gain Skills Beyond the Classroom with Water Quality Research

Lisa Walker
Publication date: 
April 12, 2022
Research projects give students the experiential learning they may be seeking outside the classroom.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kara Nell is preparing her students to find solutions to local environmental problems through water quality research and lab work. As a materials chemist, Nell focuses much of her research with students on creating functionalized materials to target specific molecules. Making functionalized materials is the process of adding new functions, features, capabilities, or properties to a material by changing the surface chemistry of the material. “I’m interested in designing and synthesizing materials to help solve environmental problems,” says Nell.

One problem that she is addressing with the help of her students relates to excess nutrients in our water, which can be detrimental to humans. Most notably, excess nitrate in the water is known to cause blue baby syndrome in infants younger than six months who are bottle-fed with formula mixed with water containing excess nitrate. The nitrate binds to the hemoglobin in the baby’s blood, making the blood incapable of carrying oxygen through the body. Nell and her students are creating functionalized materials to draw out the nitrate. Nell explains that they are specifically trying to design an organic molecule to recognize and bind only that particular analyte—the nitrate—and remove it from the water. She likened it to the claw in the claw machine at the arcade where you try to maneuver the claw to grab only the stuffed animal or toy that you want. 

“We essentially are designing a ‘claw’ to grab only nitrate and phosphate from the water.” 

Nell points out that the challenge is not to ‘grab’ other soluble anions that are much more abundant in water, like chlorine, which can easily happen if the molecule is designed to target the negative charge. 

“We have to be careful not to remove more chlorine, for example, than anything else.” 

Two women wearing white lab coats and goggles writing in a notebook

Nell says students are involved in every step of the process. They collect the water, conduct the water testing, help design the materials, and perform the synthesis, characterization, and performance testing. Nell acts as a “very hands-on” research advisor, working hand-in-hand with the students and managing their projects and progress.

Other research projects that her students participate in include making functionalized materials to remove organic pesticides from water and making more thermally stable materials to remove carbon dioxide from gas. In fact, students are involved in all of her research projects. They also come to her with their own ideas for projects and are encouraged to do so. That way “students get to do things that they’re specifically interested in,” she says. Students also have the opportunity to lead projects and, with Nell’s assistance, are responsible for creating proposals and seeking funding for the research.

One “really fun project started by a student,” Nell notes, was isolating and characterizing all of the chemical compounds in local indigenous medicinal plants to determine—in collaboration with Associate Professor of Biology Rachel Johnson, Assistant Professor of Biology Bryan Nell, and biology students—how the compounds affect cell lines. A project like this, says Nell, allows students who are interested in pursuing medicine or are taking both biology and chemistry classes to see how both disciplines tie in together as they determine what they want to do in the future.

Nell encourages all of her students to participate in research if they are interested. One of UMN Morris’s strengths is the ability to participate in undergraduate research. Students have access to various opportunities to do paid research, research for course credit, or to stop by research labs to see what doing research would be like before making a commitment. Students can also apply to programs that pay them to do research full-time throughout the summer. Many UMN Morris students apply for and are awarded full-time summer research experiences at other institutions as well.  

Students also have the opportunity to present their research findings at undergraduate research symposiums and other external venues. Overall, these research projects give students the experiential learning they may be seeking outside the classroom while developing their research and problem-solving skills.