Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Phyllis Leber

My Research Experience with Dr. Leber by David Powers '06

Professor Phyllis Leber is an educator of the highest order.  While a student at Franklin and Marshall College, I had privilege of interacting with Professor Leber both as a student in her classroom and as a scientist in her research lab.  The four years that I spent as a member of the Leber research group were both an intellectually and a personally fulfilling.  Dr. Leber’s mentorship laid the foundation for my ongoing career as a research scientist as well as formed the basis for a lifelong friendship for which I am continually grateful.

My undergraduate research involved investigating the reaction mechanism, or the intimate series of molecular changes involved in converting starting materials to products, of a class of hydrocarbon isomerization reactions. The particular reactions we were interested in were 1,3-sigmatropic migrations of carbon, which were believed to proceed via concerted mechanisms as prescribed by the Woodward-Hoffmann rules of orbital symmetry.  In the course of our research efforts, we uncovered violations to the predictions of the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, suggesting that the rules may not be as generally applicable as has been generally accepted.  The work resulted in six research papers, including one published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society as well as presentations at both regional and national chemistry meetings. 

As a member of the Leber research group, I received broad training in the process of chemical research, developing both the technical and intellectual skills necessary for independent work as a scientist.  Independence was fostered at every stage of project development, from project inception, to synthetic work, to data analysis, and formal reporting of the results we obtained.  My research in the Leber lab inspired me to pursue mechanistic chemistry in graduate school at Harvard University, where I have focused on the elucidation of a family of organometallic reaction mechanisms involved in C–H activation chemistry.  Both the technical skills I developed as an undergraduate researcher as well as the intellectual perspective gained at Franklin and Marshall have been invaluable during my graduate work. 

Beyond work in the research lab, Dr. Leber is a constant source of support and guidance for all of the students in her group.  Be it at group barbeques in her back yard or at Friday afternoon group meetings over pizza, Dr. Leber always took a genuine interest in her students, both in and out of the academic life of the college.  Since graduating from her group five years ago, we have stayed in regular contact.  In just the last year we both attended a Reaction Mechanisms Conference where I had the pleasure of catching up with the newest incarnation of the Leber research group, and Dr. Leber joined my wife and I as a guest at our wedding.  The scientific and personal connections that were forged in the classrooms and research labs at Franklin and Marshall have formed the foundation for lifelong friendships, which are the true value of my F&M education.

    • Phyllis Leber and David Powers