Ask Benjamin Kagan ’18 about his research work and be ready to pay very close attention. It’s — wait for it — “organometallic synthesis with a specific focus on the synthesis of hafnium metal complexes.”
Yes, new frontiers in chemistry can be tough to fathom for the unitiated. But Kagan graciously offers up the layman’s version: “Well, I’m trying to make new metal-containing molecules in a more efficient manner,” he says during a Saturday afternoon meeting in a chemistry lab at UVM’s Cook Physical Science Building. “It speeds up the reaction, so you’re able to make more product with less waste, so it’s very applicable to industry.”
Kagan is on the right path: proof is in the Goldwater Scholarship he recently earned for his research. The prestigious award recognizes some of the top scientific minds in the country, and while Kagan is “an academic rock star,” according to professor of chemistry and department chair Chris Landry, he’s not alone. UVM’s undergrad focus on interactive, small-capacity science classes has created a chemical reaction that has produced multiple national fellowships and a promising future.
“It’s a nice confirmation of what we’ve been trying to do to drive the quality of the program, in modeling our own curiosity and enthusiasm for science in those environments,” says Landry. “Ben has an effortless, intuitive chemical ability; he’s well trained.”
Landry points out that Kagan is one of several top chemistry and biochemistry students who hail from Vermont, a tribute to top training that extends into the high schools and feeds UVM. And Kagan himself is quick to give credit to the teaching he received while growing up in Essex. There were no baking-soda-volcanoes in his early childhood, he says, but he experimented with cornstarch, water, food coloring and cars.
“I was always interested in figuring out how things worked,” says Kagan, an avid mountain biker and skier who can be found at Catamount or Sugarbush when he’s not in the Cook Building. And when he is in Cook, he’s typically in the “glove box,” a chamber that maintains icy-cold temps of minus 33 Celsius in an all-nitrogen atmosphere to handle compounds that are sensitive to air, water or oxygen.
Lab accidents in this careful environment are a rarity, but frustrations can happen. “The hardest is when you do a reaction, and everything looks like it went well, but you look at your product via nuclear magnetic resonance and see that it’s dirty,” says Kagan, who adds that the rewards come in seeing successfully recrystallized products. “When I open the freezer door and see that there are nice, colorless crystals sitting in the bottom of my flask, it’s a pretty satisfying feeling — it makes you feel good.”
So does learning, in the middle of a genetics lecture, that you’ve just won the Goldwater. He says he was too distracted to take notes that day, and so looked up the list of award winners released. There was his name, Benjamin D. Kagan, along with his career goal: “Ph.D. in chemistry. Conduct research in bioinorganic chemistry and teach at an academic institution.”
At first, Kagan thought he was an honorable mention, but then realized he was a 2016 Goldwater Scholar. “My heart kind of stopped, but I was still in disbelief,” he says before a long pause. “I’m just glad that UVM has provided me the resources to be able to win an award like the Goldwater.”
And while college students whose idea of a good time is organometallic synthesis with a specific focus on the synthesis of hafnium metal complexes are a rarity, chances are that the essence of what he’s doing in the lab — overcoming barriers to create new bonds — will be carried metaphorically onward by the department and UVM.
“Ben’s a diligent, thoughtful researcher,” says associate professor of chemistry Rory Waterman. “From early on, he’s been asking the kinds of questions that drive research forward.”