SRU chemistry major’s determination yields research opportunity


Shelby Schettler

Shelby Schettler, a dual chemistry and environmental geosciences major from Butler, at the 2016 Regional American Chemical Society Meeting in Kentucky.

June 16, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - For Shelby Schettler, finding success in her chosen fields of study came down to a simple equation.

She took two majors, added focus and subtracted a part-time job. The result is an invitation to participate in the University of Oregon Research Experience for Undergraduates this July. The 10-week program will see the dual chemistry and environmental geosciences major from Butler take part in a study on finding new catalysts for environmentally designed ammonia.

More than 330 million tons of industrial ammonia is produced annually with the fertilizer synthesized from that ammonia being responsible for feeding over 40 percent of the world's population.

Schettler will work with researchers on finding an improved catalyst for a greener creation process of the compound, while learning about mechanistic chemistry, spectroscopic techniques, mass spectrometry and kinetics.

"Doing what I did - taking on the responsibility of a dual major and putting all my efforts into academics - is, what I feel, set me apart in the end (from other candidates) and led me to this opportunity," said Schettler. "My success came because I showed up for it, day after day."

For Schettler, "showing up" included a full schedule of classes each semester that combined long days with late nights, logging time as a lab assistant and spending any spare time attending scientific conferences across the country such as the 2016 Regional American Chemical Society Meeting in Kentucky.

It was there that Schettler presented a poster titled "Impact of incorporation of a-alkylated amino acids on B- hairpin peptide folded stability". The project was based on after-class research labs with George Lengyel, assistant professor of chemistry. The pair studied peptides with unnatural amino acids, a process which developed both Schettler's skills and Lengyel's confidence in his student's abilities and aptitude. Their time together convinced Lengyel that his protégé should apply for one or more REU opportunities, which are funded through the National Science Foundation.

"She was an excellent student," Lengyel said. "I just knew she deserved a shot."

While the NSF offers an open-door policy to applicants, the odds of being accepted are often slim as the competitive funding program may select as few as only one awardee from an applicant pool numbering in the hundreds.

Those lucky enough to be selected are rewarded with stipends to a 10-week research program where they conduct intensive lab studies with expert professors and doctoral scholars. According to the NSF, projects are designed for "high-caliber undergraduates" who are seeking both practical experience and resume-building material.

For the academically focused Schettler, REU was just the opportunity she had been looking for. In an effort to broaden her chances of being accepted, Schettler applied to five programs in her fields before being accepted to Oregon. Schettler will work under UO's David Tyler, professor of inorganic, organometallic and polymer chemistry.

Tyler's current work focuses on inorganic and organometallic catalysts for natural gas purification, nitrogen fixation and cyanohydrin hydration; novel in-flow ozonolysis methods; and continuing the elucidation of solvent cage effects. He was an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow (1986-88) and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow (2010); and has written and co-written twenty-one scientific publications.

"Not only is participating in the program present a fantastic research and educational opportunity, but it's a prestigious way for me to get my name out in the field," Schettler said. "The idea of being able to list this kind of experience on graduate school applications was too good to pass up."

Schettler joins Blake Wallrich as the only two SRU students to be accepted into a 2016 REU program. Wallrich, a geology major from Pittsburgh and a Goldwater Scholarship recipient, will participate in the Vanderbilt University Supereruption REU investigating magma chamber deposits in the southern Black Mountain volcanic zone.

While Wallrich will be chasing volcanic eruptions along his career path, Schettler intends for her REU experience to take a less explosive route.

"My ultimate goal is to use my future doctorate in chemistry to teach at a university while conducting research into environmental sustainability and further methods of clean energy," she said.

"This opportunity has brought my graduate degree aspirations and my career goals together right before my eyes. I know I can do it."

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