Our Stories

Chemistry in the Real World

It's nearly impossible to talk with a Willamette chemistry student without hearing the name Sarah Kirk.

In her five years as an assistant professor, Kirk has mentored six students through the Science Collaborative Research Program in the summer, plus two Presidential Scholars (a prestigious Willamette award that provides one semester's tuition and money for research expenses). She could be found last summer in the lab with her own students and a local high school teacher, whom she and fellow chemistry assistant professor Andrew Duncan are mentoring after receiving a grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

While Kirk shares her research with students and helps them create their own projects, she also is mindful of showing them how to pass their work on to the next generation of researchers -- essential when students graduate each year and new batches of chemists must take their place in the lab.

"I invest myself largely in the training of students," Kirk says. "If I were working on my own in a lab, I could probably accomplish far more, far faster. But as a professor, I can work with students and train them so that they go on and accomplish far more as a group than I ever could by myself. A lot of my job is about seeing potential in students and helping them recognize it."

In Kirk's Chemical Concepts and Applications class, known informally as chemistry for non-science majors, she relates chemistry to an array of current events, including changes in the ozone layer and global warming. "The whole idea is to show relevance and teach students how important chemistry is in their daily lives," she says.

When she enters the lab, Kirk's main research focus is modifying molecules to create more effective antibiotics. Kirk remembers one of her favorite childhood pastimes was tackling logic problems, and her love of problem-solving eventually drew her to organic chemistry. Although she respects the work of other researchers, she wanted to do more than spend years in a lab creating complicated molecules.

"I wanted to feel like what I was doing had a purpose, with some visible applications," she says. When Kirk's mother was 17, she lost her mother to cancer. When Kirk was a teenager, her grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. "I wanted to solve problems that meant something to me. I wanted to do something that was going to effect people in a positive way."

Kirk started out by studying HIV-fighting drugs. But eventually she turned her attention to more general antibiotics, specifically Neomycin, the active ingredient in Neosporin.

Neomycin is a topical drug that binds to nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) in the body. Kirk is trying to modify molecules in order to strengthen that binding -- creating a better drug. One of the goals is to create a form of Neomycin that could be taken orally to treat systemic illnesses. "Our research is very basic," she says. "We're not necessarily going to find the next drug."

By bringing her students into the lab with her -- and assisting them as they make their own discoveries -- Kirk gives them a chance to take their chemistry skills to the next level, something many scientists don't experience as undergraduates. "Once we send a student to a prestigious graduate program, they do well because of the experiences they have had here. Then the next time a student from Willamette applies to that program, they are looked at in a different way.

"Only so much learning can occur in the classroom," she adds. "A lot of the real learning happens outside, in places like the lab where the students can discover practical applications."