Wmc Junior Picks Major, Travels 'The Road Not Taken' Solid State Chemistry Is Research Challenge

September 26, 1990|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,SUN STAFF

WESTMINSTER - When Christine Ann Pieper decided to major in solid state chemistry at Western Maryland College, she was choosing what Robert Frost called "The Road Not Taken."

"It's not an accessible type of science," the 19-year-old junior said. "Solid state chemistry is still very experimental. Basically, it's purpose is to improve what we have and make things better."

Solid state chemistry is "mostly pouring stuff out of bottles and grinding them together to see how solids react to other solids, and in some cases, liquids," she explained.

Pieper said oil companies are looking to solid state chemistry as a way to extract oil from the shale rock of Western states quickly and cheaply, she said.

This past summer, in fact, Pieper got to tour the Amoco Oil Refinery near Chicago to see exactly what they are doing in solid state chemistry research.

The Amoco tour was part of a 10-week project sponsored by the National Science Foundation's annual summer research program for undergraduates.

Pieper, the daughter of Skip and Rachel Pieper of White Hall, Harford County, was one of only 20 students from around the country to be chosen for the program. Participants were given $2,600 cash, plus travel expenses, but had to pay their own room and board.

Acceptance to the program was based on the student's transcripts and two faculty recommendations, which Pieper got from Richard H. Smith Jr., a chemistry professor, and David W. Herlocker, chemistry professor and department chairman.

"She's an outstanding student, bright and interested," Smith said of Pieper. "She's interested in research. And we feel it's important for the students interested in the chemistry research field to get experience with a company or other program to see what research is really like and to make an informed decision as to their career choice."

Smith noted that Pieper had no trouble getting accepted because WMC has been receiving NSF grants for research projects for the past six years.

"We have a reputation with NSF, and if we say a student is good, they know she is," Smith said.

The summer program began June 3, when Pieper traveled to Northwestern University near Chicago for a week-long training and orientation session.

Well-known chemistry researchers were brought in as lecturers. The students also toured Amoco and the Argonne National Laboratory, a government research plant where much is being done in the area of solid state chemistry, Pieper said.

From there, group members went to the school each had chosen to work in for the next two months. Pieper chose the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she worked with Peter Davies, a professor of chemistry.

"I worked throwing chemicals together, then baking them in a really hot oven for usually two to five days -- they need a lot of time to react.

And, hopefully, you come out with this nice ball of stuff," Pieper said.

Actually, there was more to it than that. Pieper combined the elements molybdenum and vanadium mixed with oxygen, ground them down, then added another chemical, such as lithium, and baked the mixture.

"Then you add that to acid with a little calcium and try to get the lithium to change to a calcium structure," she said.

"We're hoping to use (the changing elements) as catalysts, to make a reaction go faster and easier, to save energy, time and money," she said.

It's not as easy as it sounds. Pieper had to experiment with many different combinations before coming up with one that did what she wanted it to do.

"You always discover what works in the last week," Pieper said with a laugh. "Every one of us had an amazing breakthrough the very last week of the program."

The lithium-to-calcium mixture was Pieper's success, although she admitted at this point, "It means absolutely nothing."

Working in Philadelphia gave Pieper access to equipment that a small, private college such as WMC can't afford, as well as the opportunity to work with well-known researchers.

"I wanted to get in a lab setting different from WMC," Pieper said. "I worked with equipment that costs 10 times my tuition. You hear about these big electron microscopes, but to be able to sit in front of one, flip a few switches and be able to see things -- it's really neat."

She added that Davies, a successful researcher from England, knew how to get grant money from the government for projects and so had the equipment to work with.

When the two months were up, the students again gathered at Northwestern to make a presentation on their experiences and thus learn what the different schools were like.

"Everybody went to a different school, so everybody had a unique experience," Pieper noted. "There's a big difference in graduate schools, so this way we got to learn about the department and the professors, what they were like."

Pieper hopes to go on to graduate school after she finishes at WMC.

She said she was invited back to the University of Pennsylvania next summer to do more research.

"I'm still going to look," she said. "I may go somewhere else to find out what that's like."

For now, Pieper has plenty to keep her busy. She is an honor student on a full scholarship, taking classes in chemistry, quantitative analysis, mathematical physics, calculus II, religion and music.

She works in the WMC Development Office and as manager of the phone center at the college and is on the pompon squad.

Pieper became interested in science early in high school. She started out at WMC as a biology major, disliked it, and quickly switched.

But the work she did with the NSF program really piqued her interest.

"What I did this summer is pretty much what I want to do, and that's solid state chemistry," Pieper said.

Copyright The Baltimore Sun 1990

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