St. Luke's Hospital's emergency room seemed unusually quiet, thought Luna Xu '07. Everything was cleaned to a sterile perfection. A mother read to her young son as he propped his broken leg tenderly on a chair. In a corner, an elderly couple flipped through magazines while they waited their turn.
Xu volunteers twice a week at the hospital, where she observes patients and anticipates their needs. She gives crayons to restless children, finds blankets for those who might be chilly and comforts the ones who are afraid.
On this recent night, the door to the ER opened, admitting two distraught parents carrying their six year-old daughter. The girl and her friend had been playing with a golf club. The friend swung the club, missing whatever she was aiming at, but striking the girl's ear. The club severed a large piece of the girl's ear.
Xu walked over to the family, held the girl's hand and began telling her jokes. Her efforts were rewarded when a warm smile filled the frightened girl's face.
When the plastic surgeon arrived, Xu stayed by the girl. As the doctor injected a shot of anesthesia, Xu talked with the girl, distracting her. The anesthesia began to take affect and the girl became still. Xu was allowed to remain and help the plastic surgeon as he re-attached the girl's ear.
"It's great to do something to lessen other people's pain," Xu says.
When she is not in the hospital, Xu fills her day with many other activities. She majors in Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) and chemical engineering. Most students take five years to complete the two degrees; Xu will be done in four.
Xu explores other fields by exceeding her allotted credit hours most semesters. She has taken classes in biology, chemistry, statistics and business, and will study psychology this fall.
"I think engineers are frequently stereotyped as being focused on knowing just about their own field," says Xu, who prefers to "go broad and examine what I really like."
This summer, Xu is taking part in the CESAR (Center for Emeritus Scientist in Academic Research) program, through which undergraduate students work on research projects with retired chemistry professionals. Every Monday, the students present their findings, address problems and discuss their progress with their mentors.
Xu is doing research into the decay rate of radical cations with Yang Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate, and Jennifer Deng, another CESAR student.
"[Zhang] is a very cool guy," Xu says. "He is helpful, patient and willing to answer questions."
Radical cations are compounds composed of positively charged molecules, called cations, which contain unpaired electrons known as free radicals. Cations are unstable and quickly fragment into other compounds. The final product produced by this fragmentation is determined by how stable the cation is in solution.
Xu observes the cations decaying in three different solvents, which dissolve the reactants but do not react themselves. Although the solvents may not react, different solvents yield different products at different speeds. When Xu mixes radical cations with methanol (CH3OH) the reactions occur in less half a second. But when she dissolves the reactants in dichloromethane (CH2Cl2), the reactants can take 200-500 seconds to form a product.
Xu and Zhang believe the difference in reaction times is caused by the solvent's polarity, where the negative and positive charges in a molecule are located. They think more polar solvents make the regular cations less stable, changing the product.
Because radical cations are an unexplored field of study, chemists are interested in any information on their stability and their reactions. "Research in this relatively new field reveals astonishing detail in mechanistic studies in chemistry," Xu writes.
Xu, who moved to the U.S. in high school from Beijing, China, relaxes after a busy day by playing the piano.
"When I am stressful, tired, lonely or happy I practice, and it makes me happier," she says.
The piano allows Xu to share her stories and experiences. She enjoys playing western classical music as well as traditional Chinese songs transcribed for piano. After playing a traditional piece, Xu often asks her friends' opinions on the unique musical style.
by Becky Straw '06
Posted on Monday, August 01, 2005