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Associate Professor Christopher R. Graves, Ph.D., works alongside students in the Graves Lab.

When Connor Koellner ’15 talks about spending his summer in a lab, the typical image of “serious, quiet scientist” doesn’t apply.

Despite working on a project that sought to turn aluminum into a suitable replacement for expensive and rare metals, he describes his summer in the Graves Lab at Albright College as “fun.” A big part of his enjoyment involved the three other students in the lab and Christopher R. Graves, Ph.D., who served as mentor.

“We were all close,” says Koellner, now a doctoral student in chemistry at Temple University. “We got to hang out all day while we were working on our respective experiments, and we had the chance to form great relationships with each other.”

That’s not by accident. Graves came to Albright College in 2011 with two things in mind: research, and helping undergraduate students realize what a life in science could be.

“Working in the lab with them, you get them really excited about being science makers and know what it’s really like to be a science major,” says Graves, an associate professor in chemistry and biochemistry.

“I want them to have fun.”

His research—both solo and with the students who work for him at the Graves Lab—focuses on the interface of organic, inorganic and green chemistries. Throughout his career, Graves has worked with metals. “I’ve always been interested in metal catalyzed reactions, specifically metals that are not expensive and won’t break the bank in doing chemical reactions,” he says.

His current metal of choice is aluminum, and his research focuses on creating novel aluminum complexes that could serve as catalysts for organic transformations.

In these kinds of reactions, catalysts push the manipulation of molecules of carbon and hydrogen but aren’t themselves changed by the reaction. Right now, noble metals like gold and palladium are used most often for these functions, but they are expensive, rare and difficult to mine from the earth.

In contrast, aluminum is cheap and abundant, but it’s limited in its role as a catalyst because of its structure. It has only one oxidation state where “a lot of transition metals have multiple oxidation states,” Graves says. “Aluminum fundamentally can’t work, and that’s a hurdle that needs to be overcome for a broader applicability of aluminum.” One way to jump that hurdle is to develop multidentate nitroxyl ligands, which are molecules that would pair with aluminum complexes to give it those desired catalytic qualities. That’s what he’s working on in his lab.

“We can start to develop new technologies,” Graves says of making aluminum work in these kinds of situations. “Where things like platinum right now are in your catalytic converter in a fuel cell, you would be able to use more economic choices there.”

Graves, who grew up in Nova Scotia, earned a bachelor’s degree at Mount Allison University and a doctorate at Northwestern University. After graduate school he became a postdoctoral fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked on the synthesis of organouranium complexes. After his postdoc, he accepted a lecturer position at the University of Pennsylvania, then came to Albright in 2011.

“I wanted an academic job at a small school where I could interact with the students in a really intimate way,” he says. “I wanted to really get to know them and work in a lab with them and really show them how to do things.”

He started the Graves Lab as soon as he came to Albright. “My first week, I had a student in the lab working,” he says. He currently has four students working with him.

“We play music, we chat with one another. I’m in there with them and we talk about science, but we talk about our day, too,” he says. Graves is a marathon runner, and many of his students have been student-athletes. He uses that commonality to get them to open up—and loosen up—too.

Many of his current and former students conducted multiple Albright Creative Research Experience (ACRE) projects in the Graves Lab. The program, which is available across all majors, provides students with stipends and free room and board over summer break and the January interim to conduct research or creative activity with mentoring faculty.

“The great thing about the ACRE program is it lets students spend a long time working with us and really get world-like experience as they move forward with their careers,” Graves says, adding that his students’ research has also been funded through external grants.

Koellner worked in the Graves Lab for two and a half years, focusing on creating ligands that could turn aluminum into that perfect catalytic metal. This summer, he co-authored a paper on those research findings for Inorganic Chemistry with Graves and researchers from Villanova University and Auburn University.

“Doing inorganic synthesis is what I’m pursuing now in graduate school,” Koellner says. “The research that we did together is responsible for that.”

Patrick Wise ’16 began working in the Graves Lab in the summer after his sophomore year. “I wanted to do chemistry research. When I talked to Dr. Graves, his research just really interested me. It’s a really cool combination of a bunch of different chemistries, so I decided to hop on board,” he says. Wise, too, has conducted ACRE projects with the Graves Lab, and is now working on creating aluminum redox ligands.”He’s a really smart guy,” Wise says of Graves. “While he challenges you, he doesn’t let you go in over your head.”

Both Wise and Thomas Herb ’16 plan to go to medical school after they graduate from Albright. Herb says that Wise recommended him to work in the Graves Lab. His specific project is ligands that deal with nitroxides.

“We learn a lot of it using different technologies,” he says. As an undergraduate, for example, he was able to use the laboratory glove box, which allows him to handle hazardous material safely. “It’s a really cool experience, and learning the science behind them is fascinating,” he says.

Even though Herb has already been accepted to Penn State Hershey College of Medicine, he says his experience in the Graves Lab will carry over. “The research aspect of this is sparking something in me.,” he says. “If there’s any way to keep doing research—even if it’s medical research—that would be cool.”

Graves specifically wanted to work with undergraduate students for this reason: to inspire and lead them into science careers. “You intercept them when they’re just developing lab skills and class skills and their chemical knowledge,” he says. “You are giving them real lab experience and watching them become excited about making things. We send these kids out to go into research, into professional school. They don’t just get a job. We teach them how to do that and be a professional.”

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