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Investigation of the Deposition of Octyl-D/L-ribofuranosides
onto HOPG and Characterization of Iridescent Adenosine Films

Adviser: Steven L. Bernasek

Laura A. Keay


“If you can, choose your thesis project based on whom you will work with rather than the project, because your project will morph over time, but the people around you will stay the same.”


I included Professor Steven Bernasek on my junior paper professor wish list based solely on a random comment from someone that he was “extremely nice.” It turns out that he’s also brilliant, accomplished, and very trusting with his expensive lab equipment. And, as icing on the cake, he has an uncanny ability to pick some of the kindest people that exist to be graduate and postdoctoral students in his lab. My senior thesis experience was fantastic, precisely because I had the opportunity to work with such incredible mentors in the lab.

I approached my senior thesis knowing that I wanted to work with Professor Bernasek and his lab group, and he allowed me to pick a topic from his research page that I knew could not fail to be interesting: the chemical origins of life. Eventually, in order to guarantee that I would have data to analyze in my thesis, I decided to pursue a side project on iridescence as well, characterizing some multicolored films that I accidentally made in the course of my experimentation. 

The scientific investigations were frustrating at times, invigorating at others, and occasionally quite frightening (chemicals scare me!). Through my year and a half in the lab, I learned that although I did enjoy the occasional exhilarating moments of epiphany that come with diligent research, I was not enthralled with laboratory research as a whole. I applied to law schools senior year, content with the knowledge that my thesis might be my last foray into laboratory science. At the same time, though, I poured myself into my research, wanting to get as much out of the experience as I could before I graduated and left science behind. And I am extremely glad that I did, because my research afforded me opportunities to work with and get to know some incredible people.

In the experimental sciences especially, I think it is important to pick a senior thesis topic based on the people with whom you will be working rather than the project. You will inevitably have (an incredibly large number of) experiments that fail, and it is great to be working with people who will be there for you when they do. If you choose well, you could find yourself among people who will help pick you up and inspire you to move forward, past the failures, toward attainable goals. And if you are really lucky, as I was, you might even find yourself among people like those in the Bernasek group.

Due to some wonderful twist of fate, I had the opportunity to work with people who were not only there for me when my scientific endeavors fell apart, but also at moments when outside crises threatened to affect my composure. Insecurities abounded as I waited to hear from law schools, watched my friends deteriorate under the stress of job searches and club activities, and, during Christmas break, found out that my mom needed surgery. I found myself visiting the lab extremely often in January, writing papers for Dean’s Date in between working on chemical syntheses, interviewing for jobs, and supporting my mom (who recovered fully, thank goodness). Throughout all the chaos, it was tremendously comforting to work with the remarkable graduate and postdoctoral students in my lab, and their constant encouragement and advice helped keep me going through the brutal winter. 

By the time March rolled around, and I started to write up my experiments in a Word document, it really hit me just how much help I had received throughout my time in the lab. Behind every experiment and every result there were untold stories of the people who helped me: the graduate student who stayed late with me to finish synthesis steps and interpret data; the postdoc who helped me plan key experiments; the technician who took extra time to explain the nuances of data analysis software to me. Also, Professor Bernasek had been the quintessential adviser, guiding me toward attainable research goals while, at the same time, letting me develop my own project and change it over time. He let me try new things, crazy things, and I learned a great deal because he let me explore and, when my experiments failed, he and other mentors in the lab provided impeccable guidance on how to move forward.

One of the hardest parts of my thesis experience, by far, was saying “goodbye” to the members of my lab group at the end of the year. Although I knew I wanted to stop doing laboratory research (and get back to breathing fresh air 24/7), a part of me wanted to stay and continue to interact on a daily basis with the amazing graduate and postdoctoral students that I had gotten to know. During the final weeks of the semester (far after I had turned in my actual thesis), I was still doing a few last-minute experiments to try to wrap up my project, and I saw Professor Bernasek and the rest of the lab group fairly regularly all the way up to graduation.

Ultimately, I am so thankful for the impact that the Bernasek lab members made on my life the past year and a half, and the most I could wish for future thesis students would be that through their work, they meet people who are as friendly, inspiring, and kind. Based on my personal experiences, my advice for future experimental thesis students is twofold. First, if you can, choose your thesis project based on whom you will work with rather than the project, because your project will morph over time, but the people around you will stay the same. And second, once you start your project, get to know the people around you who can (and are willing to) help—you will learn faster, your thesis will be better, and you may just find that those people end up impacting your (nonthesis) life in a tremendously positive way.

Investigation of the Deposition of Octyl-D/L-ribofuranosides
onto HOPG and Characterization of Iridescent Adenosine Films

Laura A. Keay

Steven L. Bernasek

Professor of Chemistry

“... the opportunity to wrestle with a difficult problem and to follow it where it leads is an experience you won’t regret or forget.”

How do you pick a senior thesis topic in the sciences? What is it that determines whether the experience will be truly fantastic, merely frustrating, or occasionally frightening? Certainly the first question you should ask yourself is, “What interests me?” You will be spending a lot of time working on the topic you choose, so it should be something that interests you. This is important, but if you are a Princeton science major you also are fortunate that there are many, many thesis topics that will be interesting. The range of research possibilities for undergraduates here is truly astounding, and you are bound to find a topic that attracts your interest after just a little digging into department Web pages and the scientific literature, and a little questioning of your professors and friends. If you choose an experimental project, you will immediately find that research is highly collaborative. The idea of a scientist working solo in a stuffy basement lab or a drafty tower room is not close to reality these days. You will work closely with your thesis adviser, and with the members of his or her research group, to carry out work that cannot be done by a single individual. You will become a part of a laboratory group, and the laboratory group will become a part of you. You also should know going in that a real research topic will not be what you thought it was when you started out. You may plan to carry out a specific measurement, or to synthesize a particular molecule, or to examine a suggested possible mechanism for a chemical reaction at the outset, and what results may be a completely different set of measurements, or the synthesis of a molecule you had not thought about, or the discovery of a mechanism that was not close to the original suggestion. The nature of research is that you don’t know when you start out. That’s what it is really all about, not knowing. The truly fantastic thesis experience occurs when you recognize something different is developing, and seize the opportunity this presents.

Laura Keay recognized when something different developed in her thesis research. She started her research work with a plan to examine the ordering of ribose molecules on graphite surfaces in order to test some ideas about the role of ordered monolayers of biological precursor molecules in the genesis of homochirality in living systems. When these simple ribose molecules did not readily form ordered monolayers that could be examined by scanning tunneling microscopy, she changed her approach by looking at modified ribose molecules substituted with long chain surfactant adducts that might facilitate the ordering and still serve as a reasonable model of the question she originally wanted to address. This led her into organic synthesis (not the norm in a physical chemistry laboratory such as mine), and it led to the unexpected observation of the formation of iridescent films of the ribose-related molecule D-adenosine. This was totally outside of our original “plan,” and the resulting investigations made up a major portion of Laura’s thesis. Laura seized this opportunity and moved her work, and our work, into an area that was not only new to her but new to the group as well. Her hard work was a clear example of the student teaching the teacher, which is something we hope results from all thesis projects (even those that may be described in the doing as merely frustrating or occasionally frightening). 

If things work out as they did with Laura’s work, your thesis project may result in publication in the scientific literature. To see your name, and the results of your hard work, immortalized in the literature is a real thrill, and may be the thing that “hooks” you on research and on further study in science. But regardless of whether your thesis ends up as a journal article, or whether you pursue scientific research as a career, or you go on to law school, the opportunity to wrestle with a difficult problem and to follow it where it leads is an experience you won’t regret or forget. The thesis experience will serve you well no matter what you do next because of the opportunity to solve hard problems, explore them to the finish, and write about them clearly and rigorously.