Will Adair ’24, a chemistry major and physics minor at Randolph-Macon, started 2023 with an opportunity few undergraduates can claim – the chance to do research at the historic Cambridge University in Cambridge, England.
The question Adair explored started with RMC professor Dr. Madeline Sampson, who was preparing to teach a lab on freezing point depression for the Principles of Chemistry course when she encountered something strange. (Freezing point depression is a general phenomenon—if you dissolve a solid in a liquid, you will lower that liquid’s freezing point. This is the concept behind putting salt on the roads in winter; the addition of a solid prevents the roads from freezing over for longer.)
As Sampson was testing the experiments to make sure everything worked well, one specific solid, adamantane, introduced into a specific liquid, cyclohexane, had the opposite effect: the freezing point went up. With no reason to expect this result, she sought the counsel of her colleague Dr. John Thoburn, to see if he had an explanation. With neither chemist able to explain the phenomenon, further research was needed.
The work required a very specific piece of equipment—a differential scanning calorimeter (DSC). Thoburn, who has been collaborating with researchers in the chemistry department at Cambridge for over a decade, reached out to see if they would be willing to host their research efforts using their DSC during his planned trip to Cambridge during January Term, and they happily agreed.
Thoburn tapped Adair for the research after working with him on a summer research project through SURF.
“He’s a really strong researcher,” Thoburn explained. “Student-faculty collaborations are the primary driver of our research. The goal is to prepare students for careers in chemistry through original research projects that teach students how to make new materials, study their properties, and design and test hypotheses.”
While at Cambridge, Adair prepared different concentrations of adamantane in cyclohexane and ran them through the DSC, which rapidly heats up and cools down samples to determine precise measurements of freezing and melting points.
The results from the DSC confirmed the earlier findings: the freezing point of adamantane and cyclohexane was significantly elevated. The effect was also observed in several adamantane derivatives, although some others exhibited typical freezing point depression.
Future work will include repeating experiments to verify their reliability, branching out into more derivatives of adamantane to see if they behave similarly, and trying other solvents that are structurally similar to cyclohexane to see how they interact with adamantane.
The experience of conducting research in an environment like Cambridge with talented scientists has been valuable, with both Thoburn and Adair getting the opportunity to attend seminars and group meetings where the Cambridge researchers shared and discussed recent results in their work.
“We’ve had an opportunity to rub elbows with some really clever, smart people,” Thoburn said. “It’s a really exciting environment.”
Adair is seriously considering grad school after graduation, saying “it’s been a good experience for me to see how they operate and what a professional research environment looks like.”
Beyond lab work, the trip allowed Adair and Thoburn to explore the history of the city of Cambridge and visit London together to see the British Museum and Tower of London. “There’s always something to do if you’re adventurous enough,” Adair said. “I went English country dancing for the first time!”
For Adair, the chance to travel internationally and conduct high-level research as an undergraduate is not something he takes for granted.
“This has inspired me to start traveling a little bit more to see and try new things,” Adair said. “This opportunity is something only a few people have and I’m very grateful for it.”