Faculty Research

The WCU chemistry faculty has a long and proud tradition of undergraduate and graduate research. Exciting projects span all the traditional subdisciplines of chemistry, but also include biotechnology, materials and environmental applications. For example, inorganic nanoparticles are being synthesized and characterized for their ability to illuminate cancer cells; supramolecular complexes are being developed to build molecular machines; and natural products are being modified for use in wastewater remediation.

Featured Research:

Nanoparticles Used to Detect Cancer Cells

Chemists and Biologists Partner on Research

If you are interested in undergraduate or graduate research, have a look at the research descriptions below or download this flyer to see a short description and how the research is categorized by type and application. Once you've got it narrowed down, talk to the faculty members about current opportunities in their labs.

While there is not a physics major at WCU, our physicists have active research programs that involve students. If you’re interested in physics, we encourage you to contact one of our physicists about their research!

Cynthia Atterholt, Ph.D. - Analytical Chemistry

Faculty Research


Controlled Release Pheromones for Insect Pest Management

Dr. Atterholt’s research involves the study of pheromones used for mating disruption as an alternative to the use of pesticides.

There is an increasing interest in pesticide alternatives to minimize pesticide residues on food, as a health and safety concern of agricultural workers, and to minimize environment impact.

Dr. Atterholt’s research also involves measurement of the rheological properties of aqueous emulsions used as carriers for the controlled release of pheromones.

David Butcher, Ph.D. - Analytical Chemistry

Faculty Research

Decline of High Elevation Conifers in the Southern Appalachians

Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), which are native to the Southern Appalachians, have experienced severe decline over the last forty years, primarily due to attack by an exotic insect, the balsam woolly adelgid. We have been studying differences in the chemical composition of the seeds and foliage of these trees to attempt to characterize chemical differences between trees that make individuals or stands more resistant to attack by this pest. The native habitat of these trees are scenic areas such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway; this species also is important as a Christmas tree. Because tourism and Christmas tree farms are significant industries in this region, the decline of the Fraser fir is potentially an economic loss to this region.

Phytoremediation at Barber Orchard, NC: Barber Orchard is a 500-acre residential housing development located approximately five miles west of Waynesville, NC and 20 miles from the WCU campus. It is currently listed as a Superfund site by the U.S. EPA because of high soil concentration levels of arsenic, lead, and organo-pesticides. The contamination was caused by pesticide use when the land was used as an apple orchard throughout most of the twentieth century. The EPA is currently conducting a remedial investigation/feasibility study to consider future action to be taken at Barber Orchard.

Channa De Silva, Ph.D. - Bioinorganic Chemistry


Rare Earth Nanomaterials
Research efforts in Dr. De Silva’s laboratory are focused on the synthesis, characterization and surface modification of novel lanthanide-based complexes and nanomaterials with improved optical and magnetic properties. The research is focused towards developing synthetic methods to form advanced materials for display and biomedical imaging applications. Lanthanide-based nanomaterials have gained resent interest in cellular assays and biomedical imaging.

We are exploring the avenues to design biocompatible and selective cancer-targeting agents using lanthanide metals. In addition, we are interested in carrying out computational modeling studies of lanthanide-based materials to guide the experimental design.

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Brian Dinkelmeyer, Ph.D. - Organic Chemistry

Dinkelmeyer Research

Supramolecular, Material science

The research interests of the Dinkelmeyer group include organic synthesis, supramolecular chemistry, organic solid state chemistry and material science. The macroscopic properties that a material possesses depend greatly on how its component molecules are arranged within the material. The aim of supramolecular is to control the self assembly of organic molecules within materials using weak directional intermolecular forces such as H-bonding, metal-ligand bonding, dipole-dipole interactions etc.

We are particularly interested in how H-bonding functional groups influence molecular packing and how this packing affects the solid state reactivity of molecules within organic crystals. Our work has focused mainly on molecules containing conjugated dienes. We have been successful in creating crystalline architectures where these molecules undergo a variety of photochemical transformations which include 2+2 dimerizations, polymerizations and cis/trans isomerizations. The mechanism and kinetics of these transformations are studied using single crystal X-ray diffraction, X-ray powder diffraction, FTIR, UV-VIS and NMR. Other current research interests include the synthesis of MOFs and discrete metal-ligand assemblies in solution.

David Evanoff, Ph.D. - Analytical Chemistry


Plasmonic Nanomaterials

Research in the Evanoff lab is focused on metal and dielectric nanoparticle, as well as nanocomposite synthesis and characterization.

More specifically, we are interested in the interaction of light with noble metal nanoparticles and look to improve detection techniques such as Surface Enanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) and the functionality of organic electronic devices through incorporation of these nanocomposite systems.

Carmen Huffman, Ph.D. - Physical Chemistry


Huffman C Research

Binding Interactions

As a physical chemist, my research focuses on understanding why and how molecules behave the way they do. One aspect of particular interest for our group is exploring adsorption mechanisms. These are the ways in which molecules bind to surfaces. One system we are currently studying is the binding of heavy metal ions to natural products for the purpose of removing pollutants from water systems. We also explore the binding of nanoparticles to a variety of surfaces such as cotton for antimicrobial uses.

Scott Huffman, Ph.D. - Analytical Chemistry


Measurement Science

Raman 1D spectroscopic image of a paint sample with two different pigments

Research in Dr. Huffman's lab focuses on three different areas. A major focus is the development of non-destructive methods of measurement of culturally and historically important objects using Raman and infrared spectroscopy. Currently, these measurement methods are optimized for the analysis of cultural and historical objects, such as paintings and historical textiles. Our goal is to provide a powerful suite of tools that can be used by museum curators and conservation scientists for the characterization of these objects. We are currently involved in collaborations with WCU's Mountain Heritage Center and the Fine Art Museum.

Another area of focus are the development of small portable/affordable microfluidic sensors for the quantitative determination of environmental, industrial, and forensic importance.

Finally, the Huffman lab specializes in the field of chemometrics, the development of computer algorithms that are used to extract chemical information about a sample or set of samples from raw data sets that are too large to be analyzed by hand. Often the other two research areas are combined with these advanced data analysis projects.

William Kwochka, Ph.D. - Organic Chemistry


Using Weak Interactions to Build Molecular Systems

Some biological systems, such as the enzyme ATP Synthase, are complex, highly-organized collections of organic molecules that behave like molecular machines to perform specific tasks. The goal of our research is to design and build simple molecular machines and study how they operate in order to eventually prepare systems of molecular machines that perform a useful task. We are making use of a weak interactions called dative-bonding to help us assemble our target molecular systems. Dative-bonding consists of a covalent bond between two atoms in which both electrons shared in the bond come from the same atom. 

In particular, we use dative-bond interactions between Lewis acids (like boron atoms) and Lewis bases (like nitrogen atoms) to assemble molecules in which the nitrogen atom contributes a pair of electrons to form the bond between nitrogen and boron.

Arthur Salido, Ph.D. - Analytical Chemistry


Instrumentation and Product Development

Dr. Salido's main research involves developing small, portable instrumentation to detect post-blast radionuclide elements that result from the detonation of radioactive dispersion devices ("dirty bombs"). This research has been funded by NSF and DHS/DNDO, resulting in several publications. Dr. Salido has also been involved in environmental and natural-products research projects. He has formed a solid working network with diagnostic, environmental, and chemical companies, research institutions, and colleges throughout NC. He routinely partners with regional businesses to solve technical problems, funding opportunities, strategic planning, and product development. He has involved both undergraduates and graduate students in that work. He has a deep desire to accelerate the growing, globally-competitive, natural products industry in WNC.

Jack Summers, Ph.D. - Inorganic and Bioinorganic Chemistry

Faculty Research

Reactivities of Metal Ion Complexes

Research in Dr. Summers' laboratory focuses on elucidating the factors that determine the reactivities of metal ion complexes, with specific emphasis on chemistries of biological or clinical importance. The work relies on NMR relaxation methods to characterize reactivities of paramagnetic metal ion complexes. We are interested in redox activities of these complexes related to important diseases such as cancer, arthritis, and complications of diabetes.

Jamie Wallen, Ph.D. - Biochemistry

DNA replication

Protein Interactions and Communication

Research in the Wallen laboratory is focused on understanding how multiple proteins communicate at the molecular level in order to carry out complex biochemical reactions. Specifically, our research group is interested in how DNA polymerases communicate with other enzymes during DNA replication in order to accurately copy both strands of DNA. We are focusing our research efforts on the DNA replication systems of bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) as well as in the mitochondria of the pathogenic yeast Cryptococcus neoformans. A variety of biochemical methods, including protein expression and purification, equilibrium binding assays, enzyme kinetics, and in vivo complementation assays are utilized to further understand how these enzymes interact to carefully coordinate the process of DNA replication.

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