Chemistry Professor Unlocks Sixth NSF Grant
Professor of Chemistry Louis Kuo has formally mentored and collaborated with dozens of undergraduate students, secured several patents, and built a nationally recognized research program that is a model for involving undergraduates in meaningful research. Now Kuo has been awarded his sixth grant from the National Science Foundation for his ongoing student-supported research into environmental toxin remediation and phosphorus recovery.
Funded by NSF’s Environmental Chemical Sciences (ECS) and Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) programs, the nearly quarter-million dollar grant will support Kuo and his team of undergraduate researchers as they investigate how fundamental chemistry can help modify harmful chemicals used in the environment. In addition to involving at least six undergraduate researchers and two high school students, this project will engage a local high school science teacher—L&C double alumna Hibaq Adan BA ’15, MAT ’16—for two summers.
“I am grateful for this National Science Foundation support and for all the great work by past L&C students toward this endeavor,” Kuo said. “While these projects focus on understanding fundamental chemistry, they all have potential environmental implications and benefits. One of the joys of this line of work is that you often come across new discoveries that add to (or challenge) old assumptions.”
Phosphate toxins are used in agricultural pesticides and herbicides and are found throughout the environment. They can be damaging to animals and humans and have even been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases. This project will look for ways to make these chemicals safer and recycle the phosphate toxins for a new use.
“I heard that undergraduate lab research can be laborious grunt work, but not with Professor Kuo,” said JD Alibrondo BA ’19 of his project titled “Oxidative Degradation of Organophosphate Neurotoxins: Mechanistic Investigation.” JD worked in Professor Kuo’s lab this summer as part of the John S. Rogers Science Program. “He trusts our judgment and allows us to participate in all of the critical thinking and experimental design that our education has allowed us. Simultaneously, he is constantly available and happy to share his lab expertise. I am very lucky to have Professor Kuo as my first principal investigator.”
For Steephen Bokouende BA ’19, a Davis United World College Scholar who worked with Alibrondo on the same research project, studying and working with Kuo validated Bokouende’s intention to pursue biochemistry.
“I came to Lewis & Clark College intending to pursue a biochemistry degree, and approximately two-thirds into the spring semester of my first year, I began to have doubts,” recounts Bokouende, who came to Lewis & Clark from The Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville). “I came close to switching to economics altogether. However, my first class with Professor Kuo (Chemistry 210: Organic Chemistry I) changed everything.”
“What made the learning process so interesting were all the jokes Professor Kuo would make,” Bokouende continues. “I would find myself giggling while studying in the library, and before I had realized, four or five hours had passed. When the semester ended, I couldn’t wait to take more chemistry courses. I concluded that a career in chemistry was the way to go.”
Kuo joined Lewis & Clark’s chemistry department in 1991 after completing his PhD at Northwestern University and postdoctoral studies at the California Institute of Technology. His research is supported not just by federal science funding but also by industry research entities. Kuo’s lab, including student research positions, has been supported by research grants from the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund, which supports basic research related to petroleum or fossil fuels at nonprofit institutions.