Headshot sourced from binghamton.edu Jennifer Hirschi is the principal investigator at the Hirschi lab and an assistant professor of chemistry at Binghamton University.

A Binghamton University lab has been awarded $1.93 million to continue their investigation of chemical reactions.

Hirschi Lab, a BU research facility that uses “state-of-the-art” computational and NMR analysis, has been awarded the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award, given by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The award is intended to support the lab’s ongoing research, with the ultimate goal being to “enhance scientific productivity.” Victor Nyagilo, a research assistant in in the Hirschi lab and a second-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry, said funding from the award will be directed specifically toward training post-doctoral, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as keeping the lab supplied with the necessary materials.

Jennifer Hirschi, principal investigator of the Hirschi Lab and an assistant professor of chemistry, primarily researches two main methods of catalyzing a reaction, or the facilitation of the transition from reactants to products — photoredox and biocatalysis. Hirschi, who described herself as a physical organic chemist, explained how photoredox and biocatalysis — processes that have recently “pushed forward” in organic chemistry — are not yet well-understood. Hirschi said her lab’s work is important because these kinds of reactions can produce products that are useful and products that are useless or harmful.

“Selectivity is really important in chemistry, especially in drug design,” Hirschi said. “So, you can imagine you can make a right-handed molecule or a left-handed molecule, and the right-handed molecule does what it’s supposed to, and the left-handed molecule can cause like a side effect, right? You don’t want it around.”

Nyagilo, whose research also investigates photoredox and biocatalysis, further explained how research on reaction mechanisms can improve the use of the reactions in pharmaceutical chemistry.

“In order to achieve [a pure product], then you need to know what’s really happening in a reaction,” Nyagilo said. “Because if you know what’s happening in a reaction, then you can fine-tune or optimize the conditions to target whatever you want to achieve.”

Photoredox involves using light to activate reactants before they transition into products, according to Nyagilo. Hirschi explained that this light makes it possible for many more potential products to be produced from the same reactants.

“You can activate chemicals in a way that really isn’t done traditionally or has been done before,” Hirschi said. “So with blue light, essentially you’re activating bonds that are normally inert to other types of chemistry, that you either need a metal to access or sometimes haven’t been accessed at all.”

Biocatalysis, also known as organocatalysis, is the second reaction currently being studied at Hirschi Lab. Biocatalysts are usually enzymes — catalytic proteins which originate in living organisms, according to the Conduct Science website. As Hirschi described, one aim of this stream of research is to find more environmentally sustainable catalytic materials to be used in pharmaceutical and industrial applications of chemistry. The current standard is heavy metals, such as platinum and palladium, which Hirschi described as being both rare and toxic to the environment.

Nyagilo described how the catalysis methods the Hirschi lab is studying will avoid the same risks of depletion seen in standard heavy metals.

“[Photoredox catalysis] is really important because you’re just using small amounts of catalysts in the reaction, and it turns over, so it doesn’t get completely consumed,” Nyagilo said. “So it gets ‘consumed’ and then gets regenerated.”

Other alternatives to the catalytic heavy metals include more common “earth” metals like nickel and petroleum products, which Hirschi said her lab is also investigating.

Hirschi said she is not planning on significantly changing her lab’s course of research, considering the majority of the funding will go toward maintaining the lab’s regular functions. Nyagilo said the award gives the lab financial stability that will allow its staff to continue to dedicate themselves to the research itself, rather than being consumed by funding concerns.

“If we have resources, then it means that the finding process will also be expedited, right?” Nyagilo said. “Because you have everything at your fingertips. You don’t have to worry, you don’t have to wait.”