Professor receives two grants from NSF

September 28, 2010

An Indiana State University chemistry professor recently received two grants totaling more than $330,000 from the National Science Foundation.

Rick Fitch, associate professor, received an almost $225,000 grant to continue research on a molecule found in the phantasmal poison dart frog of South America. He also received a more than $107,000 grant to buy an instrument in support of the undergraduate chemistry curriculum.

Fitch began researching alkaloids in the poison frog's skin while he was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, working with the late John Daly, who began studying compounds in poison frogs in the late 1960s. The work funded by the grant continues Fitch's collaborate with the Daly group and the work funded by this grant is part of that collaboration.

"Tropical poison frogs have many interesting toxins in their skin," he said. "When something tries to eat them, they release compounds that range from terrible tasting to extremely poisonous."

Fitch's current research focuses on a specific alkaloid called phantasmidine, found in the Ecuadorian frog in trace amounts. Having more material will allow him and his coworkers to evaluate its pharmacology and potentially how it might be used in combating neurological diseases.

"All of what we think, all of what we feel happens because molecules called neurotransmitters carry signals from one nerve cell to another by interacting with receptors. The way they talk is a combination of electrical and chemical impulses, much like a telephone," he said. Examining the compound could also increase understanding of the function of neurotransmitter receptors, which could further the knowledge of neurobiology. "We also think this compound or derivatives may have potential as drugs and have filed a provisional patent."

The NSF grant allows Fitch to hire a post-doctoral fellow and undergraduate students to chemically prepare the frog alkaloid and related molecules, evaluating its detailed pharmacology. By learning techniques not taught during normal laboratory classes, undergraduate students will be better prepared for graduate school.

"We think it's important to involve undergraduates in our research," Fitch said.

The second grant focuses on getting undergraduate students more involved in chemistry courses. To do so, requires the department to buy a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, which the grant will fund.
"It's meant to support some teaching innovations we're trying out," Fitch said. "It's very useful. The gas chromatograph separates the compounds in a mixture and the mass spectrometer breaks up the molecules into pieces so we can figure out their structure by putting the pieces back together."

Fitch said students in various chemistry classes will use the new equipment as the department begins cross-course collaboration.

"As kids go through the chemistry courses, they learn different aspects of chemistry but they may not see how they work together," Fitch said.

By having students in one course interact with other courses, Fitch said chemistry professors hope that students will begin to see how all the pieces of chemistry fit together.

Sophomore organic students will prepare molecules that will then be handed off to students in other courses. For example, one of the molecules will go to physical chemistry students who will study how the molecule's structure affects the rate of its reactions and then report back to sophomore students.

"Collaboration between the courses gives a better idea of what the utility of the projects are," he said.

Another collaboration will occur between the organic and inorganic labs with the compound limonene, which is isolated from orange peels and protects oranges from insects.

"They will isolate this compound and then hand it off to someone who makes use of it," Fitch said. "That's what happens in a business. You don't just make a molecule and leave it on a shelf."

Professors hope the cross-course collaboration has a double effect for students as the donors of the compounds in one course become recipients the following year in the next course.

"We hope it will give students more of an engagement in their coursework. They're not just making molecules for their own sake. Someone will have to use the compounds, so they had better make a good product," Fitch said. "In the real world, if you don't have quality, you lose business."

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/134751391_cb5kT-D.jpg
Rick Fitch

Contact, Rick Fitch, Indiana State University, associate professor of chemistry, at 812-237-2244 or Richard.Fitch@indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu