In Montgomery Research Group, students are important contributors to many diverse research projects led by John Montgomery, the University of Michigan Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor in Medicinal or Synthetic Chemistry. Some of these students include LSA juniors Sara Alektiar and Jake Wilson, along with Rackham student Jessica Stachowski.
Alektiar said one of her favorite things about studying chemistry, which directly relates to her research, is that the concepts are logical and applicable.
“It’s nice to be working on something where you can see the point of it, you can see the direct application of it to something that is relatable to everyone,” she said.
Alektiar explained the lab focuses on the science behind life, which contributes to a number of biological concepts.
She said the lab also does work in organometallic chemistry, the study of compounds that bond a carbon atom and a metal. To preface her work, Alektiar explained most molecules have a carbon-hydrogen bond. When people get sick, the bacteria in their bodies can evolve, she continued, eventually making them immune to certain medicines. Therefore, there needs to be a way to develop new medicines efficiently.
“The way that issue is being tackled is you kind of have to start at ground zero,” she said. “You have to start and basically make almost exactly the same thing, just change one thing about it, but you have to start from the very beginning. It’s not the most effective way because you are wasting a lot of the stuff that you’ve already made before you realized it wasn’t useful. So it’s just a much longer, time-consuming process.”
However, Alektiar explained she has recently worked in the lab with carbon-hydrogen bond functionalization to improve the process.
Now, Alektiar is currently starting to do more research with metals — something she said aligns with what she is looking to do in the future. She said wants to get her Ph.D. in organic chemistry, and is very interested in photocatalysis. Alektiar offered a simplified definition of the photocatalysis process, saying it uses light to make reactions occur.
“A lot of the fundamentals and techniques that I’m learning through the different projects I’ve been doing at the Montgomery lab, I will be able to apply them to then do photocatalysis in the future,” she said.
Wilson is also studying chemistry and has been working a project in the Montgomery lab since January. His work involves biocatalysis, which uses natural enzymes to speed up chemical reactions, of which he uses mutants to modify big macromolecules.
“Essentially, we’re speeding up the process of the pharmaceutical company so that they can screen more antibiotics quicker,” he said.
Wilson said he modifies substrates — substances that undergo chemical reactions.
“For me, the most interesting part is that I can make modifications on the molecule and then force something that is biologically active to do that reaction on a molecule in a different way,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a power trip in a way, but obviously in a nerdy way. You’re able to basically manipulate the molecule any way you want to.”
Wilson took Chemistry 210, an organic chemistry course, with Montgomery as a freshman. He said he was interested in the theory behind the material so he often stayed behind to ask questions after class and soon expressed interest in Montgomery’s research.
Wilson said he enjoys the research he is doing because he gets to establish a personal connection with high-level faculty that can help him to understand the material; he said speaking directly with experts in the field is a “one of a kind” experience that is not necessarily offered in classes.
In terms of why research is important, Wilson said in the current political climate there is the perception that research isn’t as important because the results are not necessarily tangible.
“I obviously have a scientific background … I understand that essentially all scientific research is important in some way no matter how far removed away from process it is,” he said.
A big part of research, he said is learning how to fail and learning from failures.
“In lab, almost every day something goes wrong,” he said. “You might fail, whether that’s your fault or that just happened to be the experimental conditions, (and) it is something you have to grapple with. Trying to figure out those things and actually problem solving real failures, that apply, that you can see the application of in real life, is important.”
Wilson also explained the research he does has helped him in his classes; Wilson said he has learned critical thinking skills in lab that he has applied to all his other classes.
“The unforeseen interdisciplinary benefits of doing research — no one really talks a lot about the benefits you can get from research that apply to other fields often because the course content in chemistry, in biology, in physics, tends to be fairly dense,” he said.
In an email, Montgomery explained he met both Alektiar and Wilson in a lecture of over 300 people. He stressed their dedication to their research.
“It’s great when students like Sara and Jake get engaged in an extended commitment to research in a lab,” he wrote. “At first, they spent some time learning techniques, then they branched out into exploratory research questions to make new discoveries. So they are able to really see what it’s like to work in the discipline, and they come away with great preparation for grad school or industrial jobs.”
Stachowski, a senior graduate student in the Montgomery lab, not only does research herself, but also spends time mentoring younger graduate students and undergraduate students.