Research that Changes Lives

For 20 years, chemistry Professor Allan Nishimura has done research on the molecule 2-indanone, and he’s excited about his results. He has certainly learned a great deal and published many scholarly papers, but he values most the impact he has seen in students’ lives.

“I’m excited about my research because I can involve students and see them get interested in chemistry,” he explains. “They even come in on weekends to work on projects. Their enthusiasm, hard work and commitment are impressive.”

The experience of conducting original research with a professor and publishing the results has proved valuable. Allan proudly names just a few of his best students and lists their accomplishments.

• Niva Tro ’85, who did his doctoral work at Stanford, joined the Westmont faculty in 1990.
• Peter Partain ’90 earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering at UC Los Angeles and is an investment banker.
• Katie Purvis ’95 completed a Ph.D. at Princeton, received a Woodrow Wilson Fellow-ship and has studied air pollution in Kazakhstan and Kenya. She accepted a post-doc at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and hopes to collaborate on urban air pollution projects in Mexico City and China.
• Paul Ashby ’96 is working on a Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard.
• Scott Riley ’97 is in the doctoral program at UC Davis.

“Seeing students do well is the most exciting part of my research,” Allan says. “I feel really good about our program. I’m confident we’re as competitive in placing students in graduate school as any small college — and we’re competitive with many larger schools as well.”

Allan not only keeps in touch with many of his students, he also collaborates with them. Ken Martin, his first doctoral student at Wichita State (where he taught before coming to Westmont in 1981), teaches at Pt. Loma University in San Diego, Calif., and still does research with Allan.

Although he has studied the same molecule for 20 years, the technology Allan uses has changed dramatically. Today the computer conducts the experiments, which measure the transfer of energy from one molecule to another in a single crystal.
Allan does more than just program the computer; he also creates the circuits and components needed for his research. In addition, he grows his own crystals using special equipment he has developed.

Colleague Dave Marten, another longtime Westmont chemistry professor, works with students to prepare 2-indanone molecules for Allan, a process that takes about a month. Once he has a molecule and a crystal, he places them in liquid helium, inside a container of liquid nitrogen and reduces the temperature to one degree above absolute zero. Then he zaps them with an intense burst of energy from a mercury lamp. The computer measures how the energy migrates from molecule to molecule.

Allan is conducting basic research and has no specific application in mind. He chose 2-indanone because it emits an intense signal, which is easy to measure. He’s interested in exploring energy transfers to better understand how they work in more complicated processes, such as photosynthesis.

The research is also valuable because it involves students, and Allan says he works them as hard as he ever worked his graduate students. “Seeing how well they do keeps me going,” he says. “It gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”

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