10/24/2019 Peter Durantine

Autumn Research Fair 2019: In Scientific Research, Failure is Success

Scientific inquiry sometimes means discovering an untested hypothesis is wrong, which is what senior James Fahey spent eight months investigating in Franklin & Marshall College’s chemistry labs.

Under Assistant Professor of Chemistry Sarah Tasker’s tutelage, the biochemistry and molecular biology major worked with aqabamycins, natural molecules found in sea sponges. He wanted to synthesize the D and F derivatives of the molecules.   

The ultimate purpose for synthesizing the molecule was medicinal, Fahey said: “This molecule has demonstrated antibiotic properties, so its activity attacking bacterial colonies has shown to be effective.”

  • Fahey and Professor Tasker, at work on potentially groundbreaking research, say no information exists on exactly how to synthesize the molecules and thus no pathway or procedure to follow. "We set out to determine how we can create a synthetic protocol to generate this molecule in the lab,” Fahey says. Fahey and Professor Tasker, at work on potentially groundbreaking research, say no information exists on exactly how to synthesize the molecules and thus no pathway or procedure to follow. "We set out to determine how we can create a synthetic protocol to generate this molecule in the lab,” Fahey says. Image Credit: Deb Grove

The Hackman scholar further explained, “We’ve seen the emergence of a lot of bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics. In that sense, it’s important to look into some other pathways, some other antibiotic compounds, that we could generate to treat this antibiotic-resistance.”

Tasker cited another advantage to making the molecule synthetically in the laboratory instead of isolating it from nature. 

“We can make chemical changes that the sponge can’t make,” the professor said. “Our goal was first to make the molecule, and then to start making derivatives to see if we could make a novel molecule to serve as a better antibiotic.”

For Fahey, who was working on potentially groundbreaking research, there was no information on exactly how to synthesize the molecules and thus no pathway or procedure to follow.

“So, we set out to determine how we can create a synthetic protocol to generate this molecule in the lab,” he said. He faced obstacles. “There are numerous synthetic difficulties in trying to get this synthesis to work.”

Fahey tried many reaction conditions and routes to make it work, Tasker said. “Because this hadn’t been made before, we had to develop the chemistry to actually make it, and that can sometimes be really easy and sometimes be extremely challenging,” she said. 

Despite his efforts in the experiments, Fahey could not synthesize the molecules, but, as Tasker said, “It’s scientifically useful to prove that the methodology that we are using just isn’t capable of making this molecule, so no one else goes down the rabbit hole.”

Fahey found the research experience rewarding.

“I enjoy finding my own way, not having to repeat scientific views that have been proven; taking procedures that have not been shown to work and to try and show how they can work,” he said. “That’s very interesting to me.”

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