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A high honor for a grad student

Niki Patel thinks her research is fascinating. And she’s not the only one.

Patel, a Ph.D. candidate in organic chemistry, recently was selected to present her research at a symposium of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Irvine, California.

Patel gave a talk titled “On the Mechanism of Silver-Catalyzed Decarboxylative Fluorination” at the Graduate Research Symposium of ACS’s Division of Organic Chemistry.

The prestigious honor is typically awarded to students from top graduate programs, say Patel’s adviser, Robert Flowers, the Danser Distinguished Faculty Chair in Chemistry.

“I am extremely fortunate to have been chosen to participate in the conference,” Patel says. “I learned so much about the different areas of research currently going on in the field, and I was able to discuss career goals with professionals in the industrial and academic fields.”

Patel and her colleagues in the department of chemistry are trying to gain a better understanding of how metals affect chemical reactions. The products of these reactions, she says, are used in pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.

By understanding how the chemical reactions work, she says, the researchers believe that a variety of existing chemical processes can be improved and new ones created. Patel’s research focuses on silver-catalyzed reactions. By adding a step to these reactions, she has been able to increase their efficiency and output.

The research by Patel, says Flowers, who co-authored Patel’s conference presentation, could help lead to the development of more efficient approaches for the synthesis fluorine-containing pharmaceuticals.

“Fluorinated molecules are becoming quite important in the development of new pharmaceuticals,” Flowers says, “but the number of methods for introducing fluorine into molecules is limited.

“My group is investigating compounds that can be used to carry out electron transfer reactions to produce free radicals. Niki works on processes that form free radicals through single-electron oxidation to form carbon-carbon and carbon-fluorine bonds. Her present work is a collaboration with Professor Chaozhong Li at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry.

“The next step is to take what we’ve learned and make the reaction inexpensive and user-friendly so it is widely adapted in academic and industrial labs.”

A Philadelphia native who earned a B.S. in chemistry from Temple University, Patel was drawn to Lehigh for graduate studies because of its population size and academic strength.

“The aspect of Lehigh that attracted me the most is the high quality of education maintained in a small setting,” she says. “In addition, the chemistry department at Lehigh is a cohesive unit that welcomes collaboration, allowing us as students to pursue interdisciplinary research, as well as gain exposure to the scientific community.

“The environment in Lehigh’s chemistry department is both friendly and supportive,” she adds. “There is not competition between other graduate students, but rather a sense of teamwork and camaraderie. Fellow graduate students are always willing to provide assistance and support.”

Patel also lists the cooperation between the students and the chemistry department’s “highly distinguished professors” among its strengths.

“There is frequent interaction between professors and students, which allows for high quality research within the department,” she says. “Along with being good advisers to their graduate students, professors in this department are also excellent lecturers.”

Patel is especially grateful for the encouragement she has been given by Flowers.

“Dr. Flowers has been nothing but a great boss,” she says. “He is a fantastic adviser and has taught me so much about kinetics, reaction mechanisms and the field of chemistry in general. While being extremely supportive, he pushes us to be the best chemists we can be.”

After she completes her Ph.D., Patel hopes to work in industry as a process chemist.
Jennifer Marangos
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