CMC chemistry Prof. Anna Wenzel receives mentorship grant to support undergraduate research

Anna Wenzel, associate professor of chemistry at Claremont McKenna College and chair of the chemistry division in the Keck Science Department, has received a prestigious grant to provide mentorship this summer that will support the ongoing research of Ellen Berkley ’18.

According to Wenzel, Berkley’s research concerns the [3,3]-sigmatropic rearrangement of allyl vinyl ethers, the Claisen rearrangement, which is a prominent method for the rapid construction of carbon-carbon bonds. Wenzel says Berkley will be working on the first enantioselective allenoate Claisen rearrangement reaction, which recently was discovered in Wenzel’s lab by Berkley, Rachael Hamilton SCR’16 and Iain Laufer ’17.

“There is a growing demand for mild, selective and sustainable synthetic routes for the preparation of organic compounds,” Wenzel says. “In particular, catalysts that facilitate the preparation of pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and other materials are highly sought after. The proposed research addresses a fundamental need for readily available, ‘user-friendly’ catalysts to provide building blocks for pharmaceutical and materials science applications.”

The grant, called the Organic Syntheses, Inc. Grant for Summer Research at an Undergraduate Institution, totals $8,000, of which $5,000 is for a summer stipend for a minimum of 10 weeks of research by Berkley in Wenzel’s lab. The other $3,000 is to cover the cost of materials and supplies.

The research is an independent research project that Berkley will complete as part of her senior thesis in chemistry. Timothy Gallagher ’19 will assist Berkley; Wenzel will supervise this project — providing instrument and synthetic training and experimental guidance.

“The goal is to publish this research in a peer-reviewed publication by the end of the year,” Wenzel says. “In addition, due to selection into the Org. Syn. Program, there is the opportunity to publish our synthetic protocols in the journal Organic Syntheses. Since 1921, Organic Syntheses has provided the chemistry community with detailed, reliable and carefully checked procedures for the synthesis of organic compounds. Procedures describe important synthetic methods with general utility.”

Berkley, who is majoring in Science and Management with a Biotechnology Sequence and who will apply to pharmacy school this summer, was excited when she found out that her project would be supported by the Organic Syntheses grant.

“The Claisen project is a special project that has been going on for many years and there have been several senior theses written on different discoveries within the project,” she says. “This grant allows me the opportunity to continue the work that I started last year and to expand upon the research for my own senior thesis. Receiving this grant continues to validate and reinforce how important this research is to the chemistry field and to the valued role that Keck Science Department, Professor Wenzel and the students have.”

According to Berkley, receiving this grant inspires everyone to work even harder to accomplish as much as possible during the summer of research. “From a practical standpoint, this grant will be extremely helpful to not only cover the cost of housing and food this summer, but it will also dramatically help me fund my pharmacy school applications, as well as the PCAT,” she says. “I am so thankful for this incredible opportunity.” (The PCAT is the Pharmacy College Admission Test.)

For Wenzel, the opportunity to provide invaluable guidance and mentoring is especially important because Keck Science does not have a graduate program, thus allowing undergraduates the opportunity to become involved in all components of research projects like Berkley’s.

“The most rewarding part of working with undergraduate students — particularly the talented students at CMC — is being able to mentor them to becoming productive members of the STEM community, and watching the remarkable accomplishments that they go on to achieve,” Wenzel says.

And the proof is in the numbers. Wenzel says that in the past eight years, she has had the privilege of working with 44 undergraduate students of which 33 (75%) have been women, with eight of those coming from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Further, of the 36 research students who have graduated from the Wenzel’s group, to date, 19 have gone on to pursue doctoral studies in competitive chemistry graduate programs at Caltech, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Duke, Emory, Princeton, USC, UNC-Chapel Hill, UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC San Francisco, Cornell, Columbia, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, the University of Rochester, the University of Arizona, and the University of Texas at Austin. Seven doctorate degrees have been awarded to these individuals, with six going to women.

And the laurels just keep accruing. Wenzel says that seven group alumni have been awarded National Science Foundation pre-doctoral graduate fellowships in chemistry. Two research students in the PI’s laboratory have been awarded Barry Goldwater Scholarships, one additional student a Barry Goldwater Honorable Mention, and one student a Fulbright Fellowship. To date, student research has resulted in seven peer-reviewed publications with 30 undergraduate co-authors, and two additional papers that are currently in submission with five additional undergraduate co-authors.

Berkley says Wenzel has a strong pharmaceutical background, which has been crucial to the research. But beyond that, she has provided a fine balance between giving guidance and allowing independence and self-discovery.

“Professor Wenzel is not only a mentor as my research adviser, but also as my academic adviser for the Science and Management major and, most importantly, in helping me shape my future,” Berkley says. “She has offered me perspective, both in the lab by allowing me to gain research experience, and hands-on patient experience in a hospital setting by introducing me to the COPE Health Scholars program.”

In Berkley’s estimation, both experiences serve as excellent preparation for her upcoming summer-fall senior thesis and post-undergraduate plan of going to pharmacy school to earn a Pharm.D (doctor of pharmacy).

“Professor Wenzel is such an inspiring woman who possesses extreme intelligence, confidence and wit,” Berkley says. “She is an amazing role model for women in science and in power, and a stellar example of work-life balance (having three small children and a husband who also works full time). Professor Wenzel’s mentorship to me is unmatched and invaluable.”

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