By Anna Allen, '16
They say math is the language of science — and that’s exactly what Christina Annas, ’16, a math and interdisciplinary physics major, has discovered over the past few years working in UR’s computational chemistry lab.
After her freshman year as an Integrative Quantitative Science (IQS) student, Annas was searching for a way to combine her math and science backgrounds into a single research project. Annas soon found chemistry professor Carol Parish’s lab, where she and 20 other Richmond students have worked hard over the past few years to understand chemistry from a mathematical perspective.
Annas’s current project started that summer after her freshman year, but things really took off a few months later at a conference at Bucknell University. There, she was exposed to many different types of research that required a strong IQS background, including computational chemistry. “One of the speakers was doing a project on creating her own molecules, and I was hooked,” says Annas. “Her idea was to take a strip of six carbon rings, all attached to each other, and add large atoms to some of the rings in order to change the shape and twist of the molecule as a whole, creating a completely different molecule.”
Though she knew she wanted to work on a similar interdisciplinary project, Annas had her own approach in mind. Instead of adding large atoms to long molecules in order to change the structure, Annas decided to change the shape of the rings that comprised the molecule. Instead of a strand of six carbon rings, she wanted to see how the molecule would change when she had a ring of four, five, or seven carbons.
“My project is primarily a thought experiment. The molecules I am investigating are not likely to exist in actuality, because they’re unstable. A large part of my research is examining what molecules I create that are stable,” she says.
But creating your own molecules is not an easy task — even for a math whiz like Annas. “This past summer, I was working on an algorithm that could give me a number that tells me how well distributed the different sized rings are in the molecule, or how stable it is. It’s still in progress, but it’s been remarkable how much I’ve accomplished in just a few short years of working consistently on a project,” she says.
For Annas, her research lab has been like a family, with constant support from her classmates and her faculty mentor, Parish. “We work from 9 to 5 in the lab, but it doesn’t feel like work — it’s fun. It’s a mixture of working on your own research, hearing presentations about what other people are working on, and hearing theory lectures from Carol,” she says.
The opportunities for interdisciplinary research at Richmond cannot be overemphasized, according to Annas. “Working in Carol’s lab has taught me and my fellow students how to be independent problem-solvers, who can approach questions from multiple perspectives and see a long-term project through to the end. It’s a really great opportunity, and I would say to anyone: if you can, do it.”