Molecular building blocks

Chemistry professor Thandi Buthelezi has won a $94,000 grant to support research that could aid in the development of nanotechnology tools useful in medicine and other applications.

The research award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will focus on deepening scientists’ understanding of spiropyrans, a type of photochromic molecules that change color when exposed to light and heat.

The three-year grant also creates new learning opportunities for Wheaton students by including funding for two undergraduates to serve as research assistants to Professor Buthelezi during the summers. It also will support travel for the students to participate in related research conferences.

“I have been working on the spiropyran research project since fall 2008 when I started my position at Wheaton,” Buthelezi said.  “I became intrigued with the ability of spiropyrans to change from colorless to colored molecules in response to light or heat.”

The characteristics of these molecules could be used in a variety of applications from transition eye lenses to optical switches for molecular computers. At present, however, researchers do not understand how to control their inherent instability.

“My research students and I are investigating the structural properties of the spiropyran under different environments,” said Buthelezi. “We anticipate that our results will shed light on the interconversion process, which may enable us to gain control in the interconversion of the spiropyran to merocyanine.”

Buthelezi and her research team will conduct a range of experiments to examine the behavior of these molecules under varying conditions of light and heat. Their work will use a sophisticated instrument, the nanosecond pulsed laser/detection system, which the college acquired through a previous NSF grant that she and her colleagues received in 2011.

The award will provide training for the student research assistants in the use of a variety of instruments and research, including absorption spectrophotometer, a spectrofluorometer and the nanosecond laser/detection system. Students enrolled in Buthelezi’s course on quantum chemistry will also receive training on the laser system.

Wheaton Chemistry professor Thandi Buthelezi