Wilson Bailey Earns Murdock College Research Program Grant

Assistant Professor Wilson Bailey.

June 09, 2020
Jackie Treiber

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Wilson Bailey is one of two Gonzaga University researchers who has been awarded the Murdock College Research Program for the Natural Sciences - Physical Sciences grants and colleague Masa Matsumoto. Wilson's lab will focus on catalytic oxidations. Oxidations are often an integral part of pharmaceutical production, commodity chemical production, fuels derived from natural/biological sources (biofuels), and the formation of the building blocks (monomers) that go into material goods (think the comfiness in your couch). We sat down (virtually) with Professor Bailey to discuss how his research will unfold and how it will impact his students. This interview has been edited for brevity.


How will the Murdock College Research grant move you closer towards achieving your goal, bringing/refining new knowledge to the process of industrial oxidations? (How so in a material way?)

This grant will go towards funding necessary lab equipment and chemical acquisition, as well as student summer stipends. It will allow my group to follow new synthetic pathways to produce novel compounds, each of which we have targeted based on desired reactivity. Using a cooperative approach by combining organic and inorganic reactivity patterns, we hope to provide new favorable routes to challenging yet fundamental chemical transformations such as oxidations.


How do you think this research will ultimately impact the work and research students can undertake? Will you be able to bring this work back to the classroom?

I always try to bridge the gap between classroom knowledge and apply it in a research setting. Working with students who are just starting their chemical careers becomes vitally important to give meaning to our student's work. I design my projects to do just that. Students coming out of their first year with an introduction to organic chemistry can instantly join in the conversation. In this time of distance-based learning, we have moved to read current literature similar to this work, and highlight the connections to the classroom, and what we can take away to further our own goals. I want these projects to have student involvement at the center. While they will involve advanced synthetic and analytical techniques, these are perfect teaching moments. Also, I can model the skills needed in graduate/postdoctoral lab work, which I think many of these students will need after graduation.


Do you anticipate any interruptions to your research this summer amidst social distancing protocols (coronavirus), or will you mostly be able to achieve your research on your own?

Yes, this has already had a significant impact on my initial goals. All of my spring research students were gearing up for their first syntheses, after weeks of planning, reading, etc. But now we have moved to do literature reviews, and have group meetings to discuss new techniques and analyze others' work. For summer, sadly, I have dismissed any in-person research. These projects almost entirely revolve around in-person lab work, and as an advisor, I cannot guarantee social distancing could occur at this time. Yes, the lab is large enough where we could space out enough, but if there were ever an emergency, or thinking of all the shared equipment that is used not only in my lab but in the building at large, it just did not seem like the safe choice given our current climate.


But these students are so outstanding! After breaking this news, we had an incredibly productive conversation about what we still could do: computational chemistry, continuing our literature review, safety talks, video-techniques, and, in general, staying in touch to further these projects in any way possible! It's unfortunate that since this is my first year, we don't have data that we could analyze at home yet.


Is there currently a tool or process that already activates and utilizes O2? If so, have you previously had to rely on that resource to conduct your research?

Many researchers work toward this goal. Since oxidations are one of the more fundamental chemical transformations available to us, it is a high impact field. And as O2 is so highly abundant, cheap, and provides minimal waste products, it is the target for the majority of these oxidative transformations. The majority of our major industrial oxidations perform with O2, yet there are still a few on that list that use other methods. These are where fundamental research, like the proposal in this grant, could help move towards cleaner and more efficient chemical processes.


If there aren't any tools, how could this impact this particular research niche? Will you be able to share this will fellow researchers, or could this benefit a larger research community?

In general, any advancement in O2 activation and use in a catalytic manner will benefit the larger chemical community. What's nice about this work is that it is so interdisciplinary: there are connections with organic, inorganic, analytical, and bioinorganic chemistry, as well as possible industrial and engineering connections.


What are some potential real-world impacts this research could have? 

One of these projects is based on computational evidence that suggests the compounds we make could be directly applicable in a targeted catalytic aerobic oxidation: the aerobic oxidation of propylene to propylene oxide. Currently, a major route to propylene oxide employed in the industry is oxidation by chlorine gas, which results in a large amount of wastewater alongside the desired product. The other project is working towards understanding how to stabilize catalytic intermediates in water oxidation, another highly targeted transformation that nature does exceptionally well every day. Gaining fundamental knowledge about any step in these critical reactions could greatly aid in moving towards cleaner and more efficient chemical transformations.