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Friday, May 14, 2021

Western student wins prestigious award

Audrey Cheung, a chemistry major, was shocked when she and her faculty advisor, associate professor John Gilbertson, won an award from the American Chemical Society for a research project published with surprising speed.

At first, Cheung and Gilbertson were interested in researching reactions between copper compounds and molecules such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and oxygen.

Their original plan didn’t work, but during her research, Cheung had discovered some rare copper compounds with structures they hadn’t seen before.

Copper is found in many metal enzymes that have important functions in life and the environment, and can be reproduced in an industrial setting.

“The fact that Audrey and John have won such a prestigious award is great for our department, I think it’s well deserved by both of them and it speaks to the strength of the research that happens throughout the department.” 

Robert Berger

“Research is a funny game,” Gilbertson said. “You start out with a goal in mind but usually there’s a fork in the road and you have to make a decision on what to do.”

The team decided to further investigate the unique compounds. Within a year, they had wrapped up the project and had it published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, “Chemical Communications” by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“It’s a team award but really it’s the student’s work that is driving the reason why the award is won,” Gilbertson said.

Sponsored by the American Chemical Society, the award is given to one student from an undergraduate-focused school each year.

It is rare for an undergraduate to finish and publish a research project as quickly as Cheung did, Gilbertson said. Getting published typically takes a student three to four years.

For the majority of the project, Gilbertson was away on sabbatical, a paid period of leave, at the University of California, working on electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy. He and Cheung worked together through phone and email.

“You have to know when to cut bait and when to actually pursue something, I think having the right quality control there is key,” Gilbertson said. “But independence of thought is really the driver of whether or not something is going to be successful.”

Cheung enjoys the exploration and unpredictability science offers.

“It’s like following recipes or making up your own,” Cheung said. “I think that part is fun, it allows a lot of room for creativity. We don’t know what won’t work until we do it, that’s the challenge.”

Cheung, who is originally from Hong Kong, transferred to Western from Whatcom Community College because of its science program.

She is currently working toward her master’s degree. Cheung hopes to eventually earn a Ph.D. and go on to research the development of low-cost and efficient renewable energy.

Assistant professor of chemistry, Robert Berger, did the computations for Cheung and Gilbertson’s project.

“The fact that Audrey and John have won such a prestigious award is great for our department,” Berger said. “I think it’s well deserved by both of them and it speaks to the strength of the research that happens throughout the department.”

Cheung will accept the award at the society’s National ACS meeting in April, where she will also give a speech at the Frontiers in Undergraduate Research symposium.

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