Senior discovers new chemical process for splitting amino acids

Jolene Thurston of Post Mills, Vt., a senior chemistry major, has discovered a new method for separating amino-acid components, an integral step in finding chemical compounds with undiscovered pharmaceutical value.

Thurston won a $500 I.M. Kolthoff Award from the American Chemical Society to present her research at the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry’s annual conference in San Francisco. Thurston is one of 10 undergraduate students nationwide to receive a Kolthoff Award and an invitation to present research.

Thurston and her senior thesis adviser, Tom Wenzel, Dana Professor of Chemistry, have co-authored an article on their research to be published in the ACS’s Journal of Organic Chemistry.

Thurston has proven that tetracarboxylic acid and its ytterbium (III) complex can be used as chiral resolving agents in a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer to split the left- and right-hand sides of amino acids. Each side of an amino acid may have different chemical influences on the human body, and Thurston’s process may be used to separate the wheat from the chaff in pharmaceutical research. There are other methods for splitting amino acids, but Thurston’s method is the most efficient, according to Wenzel, because it allows the direct examination of many compounds without intermediary chemical processes.

Thurston said she’s thrilled her discovery will be recognized by the chemistry world, but she said, “I’m more interested in how the science will help people.” To that end, Thurston plans to attend graduate school after taking a couple years to work on cancer research at the Sloan-Kettering Institute.

Thurston is captain of the women’s basketball and soccer teams at Bates. Wenzel said that although Thurston earned the highest grade in her first course with him, she stood out because he kept reading her name in the sports pages of the local newspaper. Curious to see what the fuss was about, Wenzel attended one of Thurston’s basketball games.

“It was apparent to me that if she showed anything approaching the intensity toward a research project that she exhibited on the basketball court, she would be an outstanding student to have in the lab,” said Wenzel, who invited Thurston to work with him at Bates through last summer with funding he received from a National Science Foundation grant.

“She’s a rare student with incredible drive and focus, keen observational skills and a remarkable ability to carry out the mundane activities that accompany a research project with precision,” Wenzel said. “I have not had a student whose data I trusted more than hers.”

Thurston, a dean’s list student and Charles A. Dana Scholar whose research will culminate in writing an honors thesis, has found as much success on the playing fields and courts as captain of the women’s basketball and soccer teams. She has been named to the New England Small College Athletic Conference All-Academic team four times. She is currently 10th in all-time women’s basketball scoring at Bates, and has been named to all-conference teams in both basketball and soccer.

Thurston, a graduate of Thetford Academy, is the daughter of Elwood and Darlene Thurston, 1139 Barker Road, Post Mills, Vt.

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