Colin D. Abernethy

BSc (Hons), Durham University, England. PhD, The University of New Brunswick, Canada. Current research interests include the synthesis of new early transition-metal nitride compounds and the development of practical exercises for undergraduate chemistry teaching laboratories. Author of publications in the fields of inorganic and physical chemistry, as well as chemical education. Recipient of research grants from The Royal Society, Nuffield Foundation, Research Corporation for the Advancement of Science, and American Chemical Society. Received postdoctoral research fellowships at the University of Texas at Austin and at Cardiff University, Wales. Previously taught at: Strathclyde University, Scotland; Western Kentucky University; and Keene State College, New Hampshire. SLC, 2010–

Current undergraduate courses

General Chemistry I

Fall

Chemistry is the study of the properties, composition, and transformation of matter. Chemistry is central to the production of the materials required for modern life; for example, the synthesis of pharmaceuticals to treat disease, the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides required to feed an ever-growing population, and the development of efficient and environmentally benign energy sources. This course provides an introduction to the fundamental concepts of modern chemistry. We will begin by examining the structure and properties of atoms, which are the building blocks of the elements and the simplest substances in the material world around us. We will then explore how atoms of different elements can bond with each other to form an infinite variety of more complex substances called compounds. This will lead us to an investigation of several classes of chemical reactions: the processes by which substances are transformed into new materials with different physical properties. Along the way, we will learn how and why the three states of matter (solids, liquids, and gases) differ from one another and how energy may be either produced or consumed by chemical reactions. In weekly laboratory sessions, we will perform experiments to illustrate and test the theories presented in the lecture part of the course. These experiments will also serve to develop practical skills in both synthetic and analytic chemical techniques.

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General Chemistry II

Spring

This course is a continuation of General Chemistry I. We will begin with a detailed study of both the physical and chemical properties of solutions, which will enable us to consider the factors that affect both the rates and the direction of chemical reactions. We will then investigate the properties of acids and bases and the role that electricity plays in chemistry. The course will conclude with introductions to nuclear chemistry and organic chemistry. Weekly laboratory sessions will allow us to demonstrate and test the theories described in the lecture segment of the course.

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Physical Chemistry: Why Chemical Reactions Happen

Fall

Chemists are always trying to make new molecules or devise better ways of making useful ones. Chemists do this partly out of curiosity and partly because new chemical compounds are needed in every aspect of our lives, from pharmaceuticals to novel materials such as ceramics and semiconductors. To be successful, a chemist needs to understand both how and why chemical reactions occur. Physical chemistry describes the bonding in molecules, how molecules interact, what factors determine whether a reaction is favorable, and what the outcome of a particular reaction will be. In this course, we will explore the tools and concepts of physical chemistry. In so doing, we will develop an overview of chemical processes and an understanding of the mechanisms of important chemical reactions. In seminar, we will discuss topics such as quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and molecular orbital descriptions of common organic reaction mechanisms. This course will be useful for premed students, as well as for those who wish to develop a fuller and deeper understanding of the physical and biological sciences.

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Transition Metal Chemistry

Spring

The transition metals include some of the most familiar and important of all of the chemical elements. In fact, the properties of the transition metals shape much of the world around us. For instance, iron and copper have been known since prehistoric times, and their use has influenced much of human history. Nine of the transition metals are essential for life, as their atoms form the active sites of many key enzymes. Furthermore, compounds of transition metals such as titanium, chromium, ruthenium, and iridium are used as catalysts, pigments, and advanced materials, while platinum and technetium form the basis of powerful drugs and medical imaging technologies. Due to their many uses and economic importance, the preparation of new transition metal compounds remains one of the most active and exciting areas of modern chemical research. This course will be devoted to an exploration of the unique chemical, physical, and biological properties of the transition metals. Transition metal chemistry is one of the most colorful fields of chemistry. In the laboratory section of the course, we will prepare many scientifically important transition metal compounds and then observe and measure their properties.

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Previous courses

Aspects of Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry

Spring

In the inorganic chemistry part of this course, we will investigate the properties of the chemical elements and their most important compounds. In so doing, we will discover the trends in structure, bonding, and reactivity that emerge as we move from one element to the next in the Periodic Table. Included in our survey will be discussions of the important roles that inorganic substances play in our everyday lives (bioinorganic chemistry, industrial materials, and nanotechnology). Analytical chemistry is concerned with determining which substances are in a sample (qualitative analysis) and how much of each substance is present (quantitative analysis). In this section of the course, we will discuss the chemical principles behind a range of analytical methods and the factors that need to be considered when selecting the best method to use to ensure a successful analysis
of a particular sample. In the laboratory, we will use thin- layer chromatography, gas chromatography, and infrared spectroscopy to analyze the composition of a range of substances. In addition, visits to local research laboratories will enable us to gain hands‐on experience of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, one of the most widely used techniques for the identification and structural determination of chemical compounds in solution.

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From Alchemy to Chemistry

Fall

Tracing its origins back to ancient Egypt, alchemy was a dark—often forbidden—art whose practitioners wrote cryptic, encoded, symbolic, and often secretive texts. Driven by the desire to turn base metals into gold and to discover the Philosopher’s Stone and, with it, the secret of immortality, alchemists studied the transmutation of physical substances. Despite its unsavory reputation, alchemy was practiced by some of the most extraordinary individuals in the history of humanity’s intellectual development: Jabir ibn-Hayyan, Roger Bacon, Paracelsus, and Robert Boyle. Indeed, Isaac Newton—widely regarded as the father of modern science—wrote more alchemical manuscripts than on any other subject. In this course, we will investigate the essence of alchemy and its turbulent history. The course will then explore the legacy of alchemy: how the work of the alchemists enabled the scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries to transform alchemical lore into the modern science of chemistry.

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Organic Chemistry

Year

Organic chemistry is the study of chemical compounds whose molecules are based on a framework of carbon atoms, typically in combination with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Despite this rather limited set of elements, there are more organic compounds known than there are compounds that do not contain carbon. Adding to the importance of organic chemistry is the fact that very many of the chemical compounds that make modern life possible—such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, herbicides, plastics, pigments, and dyes—can be classed as organic. Organic chemistry, therefore, impacts many other scientific subjects; and knowledge of organic chemistry is essential for a detailed understanding of materials science, environmental science, molecular biology, and medicine. This course gives an overview of the structures, physical properties, and reactivity of organic compounds. We will see that organic compounds can be classified into families of similar compounds based upon certain groups of atoms that always behave in a similar manner no matter what molecule they are in. These functional groups will enable us to rationalize the vast number of reactions that organic reagents undergo. We will also look at the synthesis of large, complicated molecules from simple starting materials, how organic compounds can be separated and purified, and the techniques that are used to identify and determine the molecular structure of organic compounds. In the laboratory section of the course, we will develop the techniques and skills required to synthesize, purify, and identify organic compounds. Organic chemistry is a key requirement for pre-med students and is strongly encouraged for all others who are interested in the biological and physical sciences.

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Physical Chemistry Research Seminar

Year

Chemists are always trying to make new molecules or devise better ways of making useful ones. They do this partly out of curiosity and partly because new chemical compounds are needed in every aspect of our lives—from pharmaceuticals to novel materials such as ceramics and semiconductors. To be successful, a chemist needs to understand both how and why chemical reactions occur. Physical chemistry describes the bonding in molecules, how molecules interact, what factors determine whether a reaction is favorable or not, and what the outcome of a particular reaction will be. In this course, we will explore the tools and concepts of physical chemistry that are required to enable us to think like research chemists. In so doing, we will develop an overview of chemical processes and an understanding of the mechanisms of chemical reactions. In seminar, we will discuss topics such as quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, spectroscopy, and the “curly arrows” of organic reaction mechanisms. In the laboratory, we will synthesize new chemical compounds, determine their structures, and explore their reactivity. During the spring semester, we will present our findings at regional and national scientific meetings and conferences. This course will be useful for both premed students and those who wish to develop a fuller and deeper understanding of the physical and biological sciences.

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Research and Discovery at the Frontiers of Chemistry

Year

In this primarily laboratory-based course, we will experience both the joys and frustrations of scientific research as we prepare and study chemical compounds that are currently unknown to science. In doing so, we will gain hands-on experience with the use of advanced laboratory instrumentation and, in collaboration with international teams of other scientists, develop our critical thinking and quantitative skills by interpreting and analyzing our experimental results. In our readings and seminars, we will first develop a sound knowledge of the current state of scientific understanding of the properties of the early transition metal elements and their compounds. This information will inform and guide our efforts to make new examples of transition metal compounds in the laboratory. We will then go on to examine how new scientific results are disseminated to the wider community of scientists as either publications in scientific journals (short communications, full papers, or technical notes) or conference presentations (oral or poster). In our discussions, we will focus on the stylistic and technical aspects of each method of scientific communication, with particular emphasis on the presentation of results and data, interpretation and discussion, and description of experimental procedures. Participating students will present their results at either a regional or national meeting of the American Chemical Society. We will also aim to publish our findings as a scientific paper in an international chemistry journal. The research experience afforded by this course will be excellent preparation for either graduate study in the sciences or in related areas such as medicine, environmental studies, engineering, or law.

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