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Thesis papers test students knowledge

By Julia Werth
On May 8, 2014

The infamous honors thesis at UConn makes the final semester for many seniors like one long sleepless all-nighter. There are many distractions, lots of roadblocks, one or two meltdowns and usually a second wind that gives you just enough energy to complete the project.
At the end of this process, however, most students feel as though they have truly accomplished and learned something as well as benefited from the experience said Plukshi Bhatt, a soon to be a graduate of UConn's Honors Program and the Chemistry Department.
Bhatt completed her senior thesis in Dr. Michael Smith's Organic Chemistry Laboratory, where she worked to confirm the presence of flavolipin in a bacteria found in plaque on human teeth.
"The whole process was really cool," Bhatt said. "I knew what I was doing and I felt like I was more in control of my results."
Bhatt spent the last three years, including summers, working in Smith's lab. Bhatt was a part of two projects that linked medical application with chemical synthesis.
When she began work in the lab as a sophomore she joined a project to synthesize a dye that would target hypoxia in cancerous tumors. After the dyes were made, Smith's group combined with a research group at the UConn Health Center to test the product in mice.
"I got to see he dyes being injected in mice," Bhatt said. "After they were euthanized and dissected you could see the tumors because the dye fluoresced under light. Therefore the dyes are a non-invasive, cheap way to detect cancer."
This second part of the project, where Bhatt got to see the combination of chemistry and medical application, was the most exciting and rewarding part for her.
Bhatt's thesis project also combined chemistry and medical biology. This time Smith's lab was partnered with Dr. Frank Nichols' periodontology lab.
Nichols had collected plaque from many of his patients that were suffering from a periodontal disease that triggers multiple sclerosis. In the plaque Nichols found a bacteria, p.gigivalis, according to Bhatt.
"He found that certain lipids from the bacteria were present in more concentration," Bhatt said. "Lipid 654 was in especially high abundance. So we asked, what is this lipid?"
Using mass spectrometry, a technique that helps to determine the structure of a molecule, Smith was able to hypothesize that lipid 654 was flavolipin.
Smith's team, including Bhatt, started work on another project, this time to synthesize the two different structures of flavolipin in order to confirm that lipid 654 was indeed flavolipin and to identify which of the two possible structures it is.
While working on this project Bhatt encountered many setbacks and frustrations as is typical for researchers whether they are students working toward their Honors Thesis or professors who have been working in labs for decades.
"When I was doing a reaction I used a reagent that was expired," Bhatt said. "I lost a lot of product and my experiment failed. I lost between 2 and 3 weeks of work."
Setbacks like this one made Bhatt realize how much she cared about her project.
"I actually cared a lot. I did my best to get the results I needed," Bhatt said.
Although Bhatt is graduating she will not be leaving her research on flavolipin just yet.
"I will be working in Dr. Nichols lab at the UConn Health Center after graduation," said Bhatt. "I will get to be there for the biological experiments and tests. I will get to see the application of all my hard work."


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