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
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
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
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
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
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.
Brian Dinkelmeyer, Ph.D. - Organic Chemistry
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.
MARIA GAINEY, PH.D. - BIOCHEMISTRY
Adrift in the environment a bacteriophage virion (an infectious viral particle) can
be thought of as little more than an elaborate protein container of nucleic acid polymers.
However, when a bacteriophage comes into contact with a susceptible cell it can initiate
infection by binding to cell receptors and injecting its genetic material (usually
double-stranded DNA) inside the cell. The bacteriophage’s genetic material then reprograms
the bacterial cell’s transcription and translation machinery to become a virus factory.
My research focuses on proteins that are expressed by bacteriophages that regulate
gene transcription and defense against other viruses. My laboratory is also interested
in bacteriophage discovery and genomics. Techniques used in my laboratory include
in vitro/in vivo protein expression, cell culture, genetic engineering, next-generation sequencing,
Rangika Hikkaduwa Koralege, ph.d. - materials chemistry
Biological Applications of Engineered Nanoparticles
Research in Dr. Hikkaduwa Koralege’s lab focuses on the use of engineered nanoparticles
as versatile tools in biomedical applications, particularly in the areas of biomedical
imaging and targeted delivery of therapeutics. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has
become an essential tool in biological imaging and is used increasingly for the evaluation
of a variety of diseases. Superparamagnetic iron oxide complexes are excellent MRI
contrasting agents. However, their half-life in the circulatory system is short because
of the opsonization process which renders them to be recognized by the reticuloendothelial
system. Our goal is to develop an innovative strategy to prolong the residence time
of magnetic iron oxide-based MRI contrast agents in blood.
Another area of focus is the development of multilayered and multifunctional nanoparticles
that are assembled via layer-by-layer (LbL) technique to explore as novel systems
for therapeutic delivery. LbL is a facile technique that is adaptable to a wide range
of biologically relevant materials and therapeutics. By altering the layer order and
deign of layer material our goal is to explore the effects on efficiency and versatility
of these nanoparticles.
Our lab also explores the potential health and environmental risks of nanomaterials.
We are mainly interested in colloidal suspensions of fullerenes.
Carmen Huffman, Ph.D. - Physical Chemistry
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
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
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
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.
NUWAN PERERA, PH.D. - FORENSIC/ANALYTICAL CHEMISTRY
Our research focuses on forensic examination of automotive paints. We develop new
analytical methods to facilitate the vehicle identification process from paint samples
found at hit and run accidents using spectroscopic and data analysis techniques.
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
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
Jamie Wallen, Ph.D. - Biochemistry
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.