Detecting heavy metals

Research that could help detect dangerous metals in drinking water won three Wheaton students an award at a regional nanotechnology seminar.

Joseph Campbell ’14, Nicole Iwunze ’14 and Elena Llabovitiadhi ’15 took second place at the NanoWorcester Symposium for their undergraduate poster presentation on nitrospiropyrans, organic compounds that could serve as environmental sensors. The students co-authored the poster, titled “Nitrospiropyran As a Reversible, Photo-Driven and Luminescent Metal Sensor,” with Associate Professor of Chemistry Thandi Buthelezi.

“I take a lot of pride in our research, both personally and as a department, as a college,” said Campbell, a chemistry major. “There’s a huge sense of accomplishment when you set out and prove or analyze something that has the potential to impact your field.”

Their research specifically examined the use of nitrospirpyrans as metal sensors. When exposed to heat or ultraviolet light, nitrospiropyran molecules change form and bond to copper and lead ions, which can help to detect heavy metals in drinking water and the human body. The students began their research over the summer, as they stayed on campus and collaborated with Professor Buthelezi as research assistants.

“In our lab, we work as a team,” said Llabovitiadhi, who is also majoring in chemistry. “Understanding each other and putting our effort together has helped us a lot. I love the energy in each and every single one of us, and the fact that we are all so excited about the research we are working on.”

Professor Buthelezi has researched the potential uses of spiropyrans in nanotechnology since 2008, when she joined Wheaton College’s Chemistry department. In late 2012, Professor Buthelezi won a $94,000 National Science Foundation grant to further her research.

“Professor Buthelezi has become a mentor,” Campbell said. “It speaks to the dedication of our staff. It also really speaks to the strength of the chemistry department at Wheaton.”

The NanoWorcester Symposium, hosted by the Colleges of Worcester Consortium (COWC), is an annual competition that seeks to promote collaborative research endeavors in the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology. The other participating undergraduate institutions at the 2013 symposium were Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, College of the Holy Cross, Tufts University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Wellesley College.


The winning researchers (from left) Elena Llabovitiadhi ’15, Professsor Thandi Buthelezi, Joseph Campbell ’14, and Nicole Iwunze ’14.