SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research


Research fellow: Ryan Vallee
Hometown: Cumberland, RI
School: University of Rhode Island
Majors: Chemistry, Physics

Ryan Vallee, a rising junior, first tried to secure a position in a research lab his freshman year, but lacked both time and experience.

Then, during the fall of his sophomore year, he took an organic chemistry lab, which gave him insight into what it might be like to conduct research. This past spring, Vallee began working 15 to 16 hours a week in the lab of Associate Professor Mindy Levine, Department of Chemistry, on the detection of fungicides with fluorescent conjugated polymers.

That opportunity turned into a full-time Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) experience for Vallee in the Levine lab, allowing him to focus solely on research without having to balance the work with his academics.

“She really wants you to be the best you can be,” Vallee says of his faculty mentor. “I’m so glad I landed in her lab. And, the experience has confirmed my desire to go onto graduate school. I really do like coming into the lab every day, putting in the time, and achieving results, whether good or bad.”

Helping investigate the exposure and content of BPA, a harmful organic chemical compound, in coastal marine environments, Vallee is supported by a $4,500 stipend and up to $500 in research supplies from Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR. The Levine project aims to develop BPA detection technology to monitor exposure of the chemical via a handheld smartphone device, and gain a better understanding of the impacts of climate change.

Vallee explains his work has focused on using fluorescent conjugated polymers, long chains of atoms that act together to emit light, as a color changing system to detect toxic environmental chemicals: “Essentially, I’m looking at fluorescent signals and the change in these signals following exposure. Polymers are very interesting. They are sensitive and can detect compounds of interest at low concentrations, due in part to their structure and the chemistry behind conjugated polymers. If just one molecule of interest interacts with the polymer, either through binding or through weak forces, the fluorescent signal of that polymer can be diminished, amplified, or possibly even unchanged.”

The idea sounds complex to the untrained, non-scientist, but Vallee says the theory is straightforward and essentially comes down to a lot of lab work. He starts off with any polymer dissolved in some solvent and shines a specific wavelength of light at the sample before introducing a compound like BPA, then introduces the compound of interest and measures the sample again, looking for any changes in the emission of that polymer.

“Chemistry is awesome. With chemistry, you can basically do anything, and the research possibilities are endless.”

Using another method, he deposits a polymer solution on a glass slide. The solvent evaporates via a spin coating method and leaves a thin polymer film behind, to which BPA can be added and assessed for interaction — a slow, detailed process that Vallee says has taken nearly the entire summer to develop.

“The thin films can be a pain to work with, but our valuable in our understanding of these systems for detection of BPA,” he says. “It can take hours just to make several, and you can only use the slides before and after analyte is added, being that the slide will be contaminated following analyte exposure. My favorite part of research is putting together all the data collected over a day, compiling it, and analyzing it to see what story the data tells, pointing the project in its next direction.”

For Vallee, who arrived on campus intending to major in Cell and Molecular Biology with a Biochemistry track, chemistry is proving to be his passion and a good fit. And, he says, the SURF experience has deepened his interest in the field and has further developed his writing and time management skills.

Halfway through his undergraduate degree, Vallee says he is leaning toward graduate school for organic chemistry and then finding a position in higher education that would allow him to conduct research and teach, with most of his time focused on hands-on research.

“Chemistry is awesome,” Vallee says, grinning. “With chemistry, you can basically do anything, and the research possibilities are endless.”

Vallee will present his research findings Friday, July 28, at the University of Rhode Island, along with other Rhode Island university and college students at the 10th Annual RI SURF Conference. The annual event marks the culmination of the SURF program, which this year involved 24 RI NSF EPSCoR students and 99 from the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (RI-INBRE).

Story and photo by Amy Dunkle