College professor appreciates relationship with local industry


Chemistry is known as “The Central Science” because it provides a foundation to understand astronomy, biology, geology and many other sciences. In the most recent Marietta College Strategic Plan Focused on Distinction, the College identified four signature programs: Globalization, Energy and Environmental Protection, Leadership and Health and Wellness. As well as being the central science, the Chemistry Department believes that it can be “Central” to these four signature programs.

No one will argue the importance in preparing students for futures in health and wellness. All students prepare for careers in medicine and medical research with a rigorous program rooted in chemistry and biology. The chemistry department has tried to go beyond this obvious connection by developing a plan with the Business and Economics Department to prepare students for leadership positions in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries with an eye on emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil.  As the current department chair in chemistry, I am working to forge stronger ties to the Petroleum Engineering Department and the Petroleum Industry in southeast Ohio. These ties will benefit students in both departments and they will help to reinforce the contemporary liberal arts education offered at Marietta College by presenting the same field from multiple perspectives.

The current oil boom due the exploration of the Utica Shale formation in this region is dependent upon scientists in many fields. Chemistry is involved in many facets of the exploration/production process.  From the formulation of drilling additives to the analysis of flow back and produced waters from fracking process, chemistry and chemists are utilized.

In order to better understand what students in both chemistry and petroleum engineering need for their future careers, I went to work last summer at Washington Water Solutions, the water lab of Stonebridge Operating Co.  I spent the summer as the intern supervisor working with petroleum engineering students from Marietta College, an electrical engineering student from Washington State Community College and a biology student from The Ohio State University. As the lone chemist in the lab, it was my job to help the students understand the chemistry involved in the analysis of flow back and produced brine waste from oil field use. We determined the acidity (pH), suspended solid and dissolved solid content, total iron content and analyzed the samples for trace ions such as strontium and barium. During the summer I taught the students techniques and chemical principles beyond what they learn in general chemistry and they taught me about production, fracking and engineering.

Over the past three years the chemistry department has been updating our laboratory curriculum in many courses. Over the next summer we hope to update the General Chemistry Laboratory curriculum to better showcase the instrumentation and techniques that students will use in a variety of industries. For several years our students used visible spectroscopy in general chemistry labs, the same technique I taught students to use in the analysis of iron. We recently introduced soil analysis by atomic absorption spectroscopy, a method I hope to apply to the analysis of brine samples.  This summer we will begin to write new experiments that will introduce students to gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), a technique used to analyze isotopes in oil and brine samples.

All of these experiments require the use instrumentation that can withstand constant use over the course of one week to analyze hundreds of samples. During my time at Washington Water Solutions, I approached my supervisor, John Samson, about the possibility of increasing collaboration between the Marietta College Chemistry Department and Stonebridge Operating. He set up an appointment with Eddy Biehl, the CEO of Stonebridge. I told Eddy of the need for better instrumentation to help better prepare our graduates, in all majors, for positions in the oil and gas industry. Recently the chemistry department received a donation of $50,000 from Stonebridge Operating to help fund the future purchase of this instrumentation.

This year, I have put what I learned over the summer to work in my courses. I have found new ways to apply the general chemistry of atomic and molecular structure, solutions and intermolecular forces to topics of interest to our students. Based on this I have recruited two petroleum engineering majors, Zade von Seeger ’15 and Joey Casavecchia ’17 to work in my laboratory this semester. They are currently working on one of my projects in the area of molecular magnetism along with chemistry major Viktor Brillati ’15.

The work that they have undertaken this semester will form the basis of a peer-reviewed publication to be submitted in the near future. This summer I will return to the water lab where I hope to use atomic absorption and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to obtain more information about the brine samples we get from the oil fields. Next fall Zade and Joey will join me on this project, taking what they have learned about chemistry this year and applying it to their field of study. I will continue to forge ties to industry during my sabbatical leave next year. I have proposed to spend time at various petroleum, environmental and government laboratories learning the next set of techniques that the chemistry department can begin to work into our teaching and research labs to help students make the connection between the classroom and world of work.

To read more about this relationship, please look at the story from the Spring 2014 Marietta magazine.