By Daniel Dassow, Special to the News.
When most people think of dyes, they think of making colorful clothes or baking a cake. For Haley Keller, a senior Chemistry major at Kennesaw State University and a graduate of Richmond Hill High School, dyes have taken on a meaning far beyond the world of crafts.
This summer, Keller traveled to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to take part in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a highly selective program in the Chemistry Department funded by a National Science Foundation grant.
She was one of only 10 students selected from universities across the nation to conduct cutting-edge chemistry research at UT Knoxville. The program matches students to professors whose work aligns with their interests and gives them a glimpse of life as a full-time scientist.
Keller worked in the lab of Professor Viktor Nemykin, an expert on functional dyes that are capable of doing much more than simply adding color. Dyes occur naturally in plants and the human body, where they perform vital functions such as carrying oxygen and capturing light from the sun. They also can be manufactured in labs for a variety of high-tech applications.
Before he came to UT Knoxville, Professor Nemykin created a new class of functional dyes called “Manitoba nes” or MB-DIPYs (pronounced “emby dippies”). Keller spent her summer working on unprecedented varieties of MB-DIPYs that contain iron and cobalt metals and could be used in solar panels to more efficiently convert sunlight into electricity.
Iron and cobalt are transition metals, which means they contain negatively- charged electrons that can easily bond with positively-charged protons. This makes MB-DIPYs, formed when transition metals are placed within a sphere of oxygen and nitrogen bonds, ideal for a range of electrical applications.
In the lab, Keller used the techniques of spectroelectrochemistry, a long word that means the simultaneous use of light and electricity to study compounds. While she ran electricity through her MB-DIPY dye sample to change its charge, she also ran light through it to see how much was absorbed.
By rapidly changing charge from more negative to more positive, the dye enters and exits an “excited state” that may allow it to efficiently transfer electricity in solar cells, the building blocks of solar panels, as it absorbs light.
Keller said she was an “instrument monkey” for most of the summer, collecting data on the light absorption of the iron and cobalt MB-DIPYs to see if they would make good candidates for energy applications.
“I didn’t realize how versatile functional dyes could be,” Keller said. “They have a wide variety of applications, like biomarkers and solar cells and actual dyeing. It’s interesting how something I would have written off can have great impact, especially if used in the energy sector or in medicine.”
The opportunity to gain research experience through the REU was especially meaningful for Keller, who graduated from Richmond Hill High School in 2020 right as COVID swept the nation. She entered college with 17 AP courses under her belt and will finish at Kennesaw State in December after only two and a half years in college. The pandemic and her short college tenure have meant that Keller has not had many opportunities for in-person research outside of class. The REU gave her experience in groundbreaking research that will set her up for a career in chemistry.
Thanks to a partnership between the REU program and the Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center at UT, Keller was also able to hone her public speaking and writing skills through a series of professional communication workshops that culminated in a final research presentation.
A highlight of her summer was a lecture delivered by Dr. Bill Bass, an internationally renowned forensic anthropologist who developed the “Body Farm” at UT, which studies decomposing bodies. Keller, who hopes to go into forensic chemistry after working in industrial chemistry for a few years, said the lecture on crime scene forensics was “the greatest thing ever.”
Combining her academic prowess with cutting- edge research, Keller left the REU program more confident than ever in her future as a forensic chemist.