Seriously fun chemistry with summer produce: Hines collaborates with Discovery Museum for educators workshop
On a recent beautiful summer day out on the balcony of Shawnee State Park Lodge, Dr. Jennifer Hines worked with middle school and high school educators from across the state to mash up lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, and strawberries.
They were extracting natural products and DNA from the plant material using common household ingredients: salt, soap, isopropyl alcohol (a first aid antiseptic) and mineral oil (a lubricant laxative).
“While fun and colorful, these activities also explored experimental techniques and topics that my research group uses every day,” said Hines, professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The focus of Hines’ research is RNA-targeted drug discovery.
“The design of many medicines we have today can be traced back to natural products, and RNA is chemically very similar to DNA,” Hines said.
The idea for using the foods of summer for this workshop came from Jenna Rioch, an OHIO Honors senior who is working with Hines this summer to develop online content for chemistry engagement activities.
“I thought about doing a whole set up dedicated to fruit and/or veggies for the summertime using the infographics,” said Rioch, a biological sciences pre-professional major. “It could also be a cool lesson for teachers to hand out fruits or vegetables and discuss what chemical compounds give them their color and taste.”
“In designing this workshop,” Hines said, “we focused on incorporating techniques and methods that were exactly what a research chemist would do in the research lab, but that could instead be done using common, safe, household ingredients and still end up with interpretable, scientific results.”
Techniques covered included solid-liquid extraction (to isolate the natural products), liquid-liquid separation (to separate molecules that dissolved in water from those that dissolved in oil), and thin layer chromatography (TLC) to separate and characterize the molecules.
The workshop also focused on being able to interpret two-dimensional drawings of organic molecules.
“The 'reading' of organic structures is very much like visual brain teaser puzzles,” Hines said. “With just a few simple rules, you can interpret drawings of the molecules to predict physical properties like solubility and color or to build a 3D model of the molecule.”
Hines collaborated with Dr. Jen Parsons, executive director of the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery, to present the workshop. Also assisting was Dr. Mark Lucas, professor of instruction in physics and astronomy, who demonstrated three-dimensional printing of model molecules.
The workshop, “A BioChem Adventure: Exploring Chemistry and Biochemistry," was part of the Educators' Week: Life Beyond the Glacier June 4 - 9, 2023 conference organized by the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Edge of Appalachia Preserve System and the Miami County Park District.