Pfeiffer University student studies methods for cell growth

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 25, 2013

Come Pfeiffer University’s 2014 commencement celebration, Zachary Dyer will have two degrees: one in chemistry and one in mathematics. Once the graduation is finished, Zach will hold the only new chemistry degree in Misenheimer.
Away from his home in Rockwell, Zach is in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. He is one of eight outstanding students selected by the University of Tennessee for this year’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program in chemistry, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
This summer’s research is not Zach’s first gig. Entering his freshman year at Pfeiffer University, Zach was granted the Milton Rose scholarship and became a part of the Milton Rose Research Fellowship — he is no rookie to research. During his time at Pfeiffer, Zach has assisted faculty with projects created for students to broaden their knowledge and understanding of science problems and methods. This upcoming school year, he will continue the research he started last year on X-ray crystallography — a method used to find out a crystal’s atomic and molecular structure.
At the University of Tennessee, Zach is working with Professor Mike Kilbey and his doctoral student researchers in UT’s Buehler Hall. “Doing research at a small school like Pfeiffer kind of spoils you because you are in constant contact with the head of the lab,” says Zach. “It was a bit of a culture shock coming to UT and doing most of the research on my own and seeing my lab head once or twice a week. But the amount of instrumentation here is great and makes the research go much more smoothly.”
Kilbey’s lab group is interested in seeing how polymers self-assemble when in contact with certain substances. Polymer chemistry is everywhere, though often unrecognized. Polymers can be found in vital everyday objects like plastic bags, the rubber used in car tires, and even in the hard plastic shell of football helmets.
Though Zach is not studying how to make polymers in football helmets stronger, his research at UT this summer could have an impact on human health. Working on two projects at once, Zach is researching ways to promote liver tissue growth and develop new drug delivery systems.
Much of his research focuses on creating what are known as “polymer brushes,” which are a layer of polymers where one end is attached to a surface like a molecular-sized hair comb with soft bristles. These brushes can be used to make molecular scaffolds for tissue engineers, who can use them as a temporary framework for promoting liver cell growth. This is really important because the polymer brush scaffolding allows the cells to replicate and grow cellular tissue, which could help re-grow a damaged liver.
His research doesn’t stop there, though. Zach is also researching ways to improve drug delivery systems through the use of what are known as diblock copolymers and micelles. When in contact with certain surfaces and solutions, diblock copolymers transform themselves into micelles. Zach uses PVDMA and PVP solutions to test his diblock copolymers. The micelles his copolymers transform into are roughly 260 nanometers long. These micelles are of particular interest because they have applications for delivering medicine, especially because they are administered orally as opposed to painful injections.
“I’m not really sure what I’m going to do after I graduate,” Zach says, explaining that even though his mind changes every day, he’s leaning towards attending graduate school before pursuing a career in science. “I may not know where I’m going next, but I’m not worried,” Zach says.