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Mind Over Matter

For her Div III, Isabel Masteika takes a deep dive into organic chemistry

Organic chemistry is the Waterloo of many college students, but for Isabel Masteika it’s been a triumph.

“This year, I decided to immerse myself in organic chemistry,” she says, “because I had a chance to study it in depth — and I thought I’d never again have the opportunity to spend so much time conducting original research in that field.”

For her Div III, Masteika studied processes of carbon catalysis. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is used by a variety of industries in the creation of products from polymers to pharmaceuticals.

“There has to be a lot of chemical processing of CO2 to get to the final stage, and that takes very high temperatures,” she says. “Also, most of those chemicals are petroleum-based products, so they’re harmful to the environment.”

This year, Masteika sought ways to utilize metallic catalysts because they can be safe and more efficient.

“The risk of chemically caused accidents is high, partly because of the intense heat,” she says. “I was looking for a way to minimize the amount of time and the number of steps it takes for production.”

For her first three years, Masteika’s concentrated in biology. As a Div I, she studied molecular biology under Christopher Jarvis, professor of cell biology, and John Castorino, assistant professor of molecular biology. (Both served on her Div III committee, which was chaired by Rayane Moriera, associate professor of organic chemistry).

“Isabel’s Div III is indicative of her incredible passion for learning,” says Castorino. “It was amazing that she could spend three years studying biology and then switch to chemistry for her thesis and be successful. Her project is a great example of how Hampshire students push themselves.”

Masteika advanced her lab skills and her appreciation for the rigors of the natural sciences during her junior year abroad, at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. The school’s department of biological sciences stresses teamwork among students and collaboration between them and professors.

Ultimately, though, Masteika’s interest still lies in biology, but, she says, “I now understand it on a molecular level because of my work in organic chemistry.”

Right after graduation, she will work at the Boston University School of Medicine in the lab of the Neuromuscular Biology & Disease Group. The Miller Lab identifies the underlying pathologies, such as cell mutations, of neuromuscular diseases and tries to develop new therapeutic strategies to treat them. Masteika will be focusing on muscular dystrophy.

“The way we do science at Hampshire is unique,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this research anywhere else. You can’t find this level of independent work at other schools.”

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