The Catalyst in the Chemistry Department

Prof. Kelly Chacón on life, death, and heavy metal.

By Brandon Zero ’11 | December 14, 2020

It could have turned out very differently for Prof. Kelly Chacón.

At 23, she was working at Hoda’s Middle Eastern Cuisine on SE Belmont Street while finishing up general education prereqs at Mount Hood Community College: basic math, English, biology. The plan? Leverage her recently earned GED towards an associate’s degree and become a nurse.

She still remembers the fateful day she pivoted toward the path to become a fast-rising scientist scoring awards worth nearly three-quarters of a million dollars. She was sitting in a lecture hall when a professor (who also happened to work for Beaver Mustard) took the floor to discuss the famous 1952 Miller-Urey experiment, where investigators attempted to recreate the chemical origins of life on earth. It blew her mind.

“I thought, ‘Are you serious? This is something people can study?’”

Chacón transferred to Portland State University before finishing her associate’s degree, taking classes in chemistry that prodded her to lobby professors for desks in their research labs. Work as a lab tech led her to graduate school and a passion for discovering the unknown.

“It felt strange that that could be accessible to a person like me. My grandmother couldn’t read,” she said. “I wanted to figure out how far I could get before it got too hard, and it just didn’t.”

Now an assistant professor of chemistry at Reed, Chacón earned national recognition this year by winning a prestigious $650,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. The grant targets early-career scientists with a special talent for research and education.

“The NSF CAREER award is immensely prestigious, says her colleague in the department, Prof. Miriam Bowring. “Kelly runs an incredibly impressive undergraduate research program, working at the cutting edge of bioinorganic spectroscopy to identify and answer fundamental scientific questions. She’s an accomplished researcher, mentor, colleague, and teacher who brings to all those roles an especially important perspective as a queer Latinx first-gen low-SES scientist.”

Prof. Arthur Glasfeld agrees. “Within the sciences this is the highest award standardly given to pretenure faculty,” he says. “This is a big deal. You’re only going to get it if you’ve been rocking on research and teaching commitment.”

Drinking Te

The grant centers on tellurium, a heavy metal increasingly used in the backbone of our technological infrastructure. The fiber cables delivering signals to your internet router, the memory chips powering your laptop, and the solar panels coming to a green roof near you all contain the big “Te,” thanks to its conductive properties. Unfortunately, tellurium ions are highly toxic, and tellurium contamination is becoming more widespread as demand for the element increases.

Chacón’s research focuses on the biochemical mechanisms that allow certain kinds of bacteria to digest toxic forms of tellurium ions and render them chemically inert. Students in her Biochemical Methods course inserted circular strands of DNA that code for tellurium-detoxifying proteins into bacteria. After the bacteria reproduced, the Reedies extracted these proteins in order to begin to figure out which proteins and amino acids, exactly, may be responsible for the feat.

Tellurium is often mined as a byproduct of copper, creating further applications for the research. If the Te-drinking bacteria can render the metal inert and therefore non-toxic at the site of production, could miners extract it more safely? More efficiently? And as products containing tellurium near the end of their usefulness, might the bacteria naturally recycle the stuff? 

The biochemistry of tellurium represents a frontier science. A search on PubMed (a database that contains more than 30 million citations) returns a whopping 178 articles. But the field’s relative greenness is an attraction for Chacón, who was drawn to chemistry by the possibility of making an original contribution.

In the lab and in the classroom, she is a proponent of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CURE)—an educational strategy that demands that students build everything from the ground up. Their own lines of inquiry, their own solutions, and their own titrates. That means no premeasured solvents come lab time. And an iterative approach to problem-solving that advocates say is better at inspiring scientific intuition than traditional approaches to chemistry.

Prof. Chacón is proud that her students laid the groundwork for her NSF grant. Last year Segovia Garcia ’21, who is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, did an independent study contributing to Chacón’s proposal. Working with bacterial proteins? Doable. With fatty bacterial proteins? Here’s where it gets messy: the fat makes expressed proteins difficult to handle and test using typical methods derived for water-based environments. So difficult, in fact, that Garcia scored the critical protein expression only just in time for Chacón to submit the proposal two days later.

When the comments from her grant proposal came back, reviewers made pointed references to the uneven quality of some student-prepared gels. The criticism didn’t bother her at all. Having undergrads build and run a lab from its inventory to final results pays off in ways that are far more profound.

“It’s as if they’re starting their first day as grad students,” she says. “They start realizing that it’s in them, and become empowered to come up with imaginative ideas because they’re not waiting on me.”

This approach certainly worked for Garcia. “Kelly is in large part the reason why I consider myself a competent and relatively independent scientist,” she says. “She gave me a spot in her lab when I had almost no prior experience and let me run free. Instead of monitoring my every move like most professors would with a sophomore student, she taught me how to RTFM (read the f***ing manual), troubleshoot effectively, and get creative with my knowledge and resources in order to answer scientific questions.”

Prof. Chacón also mentors historically underserved students in North Portland and is a vocal advocate for inclusion, both in the field of chemistry and in higher education. “Kelly is an incredibly caring and knowledgeable person,” says Garcia. “She always showed immense concern and interest in the wellbeing of her students. She is a holistic mentor in that I know I can come to her with almost any problem (personal, academic, social, etc) and receive an honest answer devoid of judgement with my best interests in mind.”

Last year, Chacón sent out a call for proposals for LGBTQ and minority graduate students to come to Reed to give a talk on their research. Floored by the response—she received nearly a thousand expressions of interest—she decided to create a two-day conference as part of the NSF grant. This time, instead of inviting a single graduate student, Reed will have funds to invite several young scholars. And the focus will shift as well. Alongside talks on their research projects that showcase their work as scholars, the grad students will share coping strategies for thriving in higher ed—another demonstration, if you will, of creative synthesis in science.

Tags: Academics, Professors