Chemical Attraction

July 30, 2012—Chemistry major Brooks Culotta (C’13) spends a lot of time working with volatile compounds while clad in a lab coat. In his three years at Georgetown, he has established himself as a key member of one of the chemistry department’s teams engaged in cutting-edge research.

Culotta first became interested in chemistry six years ago. As a sophomore in high school, he took his first chemistry course and excelled in it. “What really drew me to chemistry was the fact that it explains things about the world that you never even consider on a day-to-day basis. Chemistry is the basis of everything that happens, if you think about,” Culotta said. “It’s so important, and it’s all behind the scenes most of the time.”

The experience helped him determine that he wanted to be a chemistry major in college, but “always with the idea in the back of my mind that I wanted to go into medicine,” he explained. He ultimately decided to attend Georgetown (where he was also accepted early to Georgetown’s School of Medicine) because its chemistry department has strong ties to undergraduate students.

“I was impressed when I visited for the GAAP Weekend. What was really big was that Georgetown emphasized the possibility of immediate undergraduate lab research, whereas the other schools that I visited didn’t make that nearly as apparent,” Culotta said.

After his first year, Culotta contacted Professor Timothy Warren about working in his laboratory, and was shocked that his inexperience in the field was not seen as a deterrent.

“I started off with, ‘I just finished general chemistry and I don’t really know that much about the kind of chemistry you do.’ But it wasn’t an issue because, in the lab, you learn while you’re working,” Culotta explained. “I really liked that. I learned a lot as well, so it was a good opportunity.”

Culotta conducts research with doctoral student Allan Jay Cardenas and Professor Warren himself, who instructs the group as it works toward a common goal. Culotta’s research goal has been to demystify nitric oxide, an unstable molecule that forms when nitrogen and oxygen combine in nature.

Nitric oxide is found everywhere from the electric sparks of a thunderstorm to the bloodstream of the human body, where it performs vital functions that are not yet fully understood by the scientific community.

“[Nitric oxide] is a vasodilator, which means it helps with the constriction and relaxation of veins and blood flow. What we’re doing is researching its metabolic pathway in the body,” Culotta said. “We know that the body synthesizes nitric oxide, but we don’t know how. By stimulating and synthesizing active sites of enzymes and reacting them with nitric oxide, we might have a better understanding of how nitric oxide works.”

Since he joined the lab team, Culotta has been published as a contributor in two highly acclaimed articles, including a recent paper that was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society earlier this year. This research focused on Culotta and Cardenas’ work with German scientists to learn more about the interactions between frustrated Lewis pairs (FLP)—a combination of a Lewis acid and base—and nitric oxide.

“Although it is a radical, nitric oxide is very stable and unreactive. It is widely produced in industry as a byproduct. However, there are limited applications with nitric oxide,” Cardenas explained. Cardenas and Culotta developed a process to use FLP to change nitric oxide’s chemical properties and found new possible applications, “such as a catalyst and initiator for polymerization,” Cardenas said.

With plans to attend Georgetown’s School of Medicine next fall, Culotta wants to parlay his background in chemistry into a career in medicine. He has known since middle school that he wants to be an oncologist, a doctor who specializes in cancer. Although most pre-medical students major in biology, Culotta thinks his experience with compounds and chemicals will serve him well.

“If I was going to speculate, I’d say that doctors use a lot of chemistry,” Culotta said. “Even though I made up my mind [to be an oncologist] before I even knew about chemistry, I still think it makes sense. I still think it’s an appropriate bridge. I see the importance of the research that we’re doing now with nitric oxide, which applies to the human body.”

—Brittany Coombs