Henry Castillo '15
Castillo learned about the SURF program when he was a prospective student.
Randolph-Macon College student Henry Castillo ’15, a
chemistry and physics major, is participating
in the Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF)
program. SURF offers students the unique opportunity to conduct 10 weeks of full-time,
original research during the summer months, under the guidance of a faculty mentor.
“I learned about SURF while I was a prospective
student,” says Castillo. “During my sophomore year, I began asking several
professors about SURF projects, and Chemistry Professor John Thoburn’s research,
which deals with supramolecular chemistry, grabbed my interest.” Thoburn serves
as Castillo’s SURF mentor.
Castillo’s project is titled “Chiral Recognition of Guests by Cubic Porphyrin Metallocomplexes.”
“Supramolecular chemistry involves molecules coming together to form bigger molecules
that are able to host small molecules inside the supramolecules,” explains Castillo.
“Recently, a great deal of attention has been given to metallo-supramolecular structures
because of their ability to catalyze reactions, serve as ‘vessels’ for reactions,
store information, render highly reactive chemical species inactive, and form unimolecular
The “bigger molecule” in Castillo’s project was developed by Thoburn and several
colleagues during his 2011 sabbatical at Cambridge University.
“The molecule is a cube made of iron vertices, with porphyrin sides,” says Castillo.
“The porphyrins can be arranged either clockwise or counterclockwise; this arrangement
is part of a property known as chirality. The smaller molecule that I am working
with is pentahelicene, which is essentially a spiral ‘staircase’ made of five benzenes
that are hexagons of carbons. The ‘staircases’ can either twirl counterclockwise
or clockwise; this is also chirality.”
Previous studies have indicated that the cube is homo-chiral: its sides are arranged
either all clockwise or all counterclockwise. The difference between the two types
of cubes is that one rotates light one way while the other rotates light in the
opposite direction. Castillo is researching whether or not the “staircases” can
alter the chirality of the cube.
A Day in the Lab
“In the lab, I am synthesizing pentahelicene (the ‘staircases’),” says Castillo.
“What Professor Thoburn is doing is only being done in three institutions: R-MC,
Cambridge University, and the University of Otago in New Zealand. In addition, we
are doing what no one else has done before. It feels cool to be part of a ‘pioneering
expedition.’ What we are doing may have a significant impact in the future.”
“I am experiencing something that not many undergraduates have the opportunity to
experience,” says Castillo of the SURF program. “I have learned to use lab equipment
and analyze molecules. Everything that I am doing will help me in my future—including
graduate school and beyond.”
“This is a great research project for an undergraduate,” says Thoburn. “It gives
Henry a chance to carry out original research on a project of interest to him and
to experts in this field. He has received valuable training in many new laboratory
skills while at the same time making connections with things he has learned from
his chemistry curriculum. This project will serve him well as he continues his undergraduate
work and it will leave him well-prepared for advanced studies in graduate school.”
The SURF program was established in 1995 through a generous gift made by Ben '64
and Peggy Schapiro. The Schapiros continue to support this program, which promotes
scholarly undergraduate research by R-MC students in all disciplines.