Despite challenges presented by COVID-19, MSU chemistry students continue research, achieve great outcomes

Chemistry Students 2020

by Sarah Nicholas

     STARKVILLE, MS—Three Mississippi State University senior chemistry majors forged ahead with summer research at MSU, honing skills and gaining research experience. Two of the students published peer-reviewed papers.  

Seniors Matthew T. Figgins, from Kennett, Missouri; Nathan C. Frey, from Slidell, Louisiana; and Laura N. Olive, from Summit, Mississippi, spent the summer working in The Webster Lab, which focuses on computational inorganic, bioinorganic, and organometallic chemistry.

Charles Edwin Webster, an MSU chemistry professor and mentor for the students, said, “These students all have an extraordinary commitment to their research. They all had other summer opportunities that COVID-19 took away. I am so glad we were able to continue our program here at Mississippi State University. With the blessing from our administration, our faculty pushed forward with this experience, and it was very successful.”

“I could not pass up the opportunity to continue working with my students, even in the current climate in our state and country with the COVID-19 ‘dark cloud’ hanging over us,” Webster said. “These types of experiences are so important for the students to grow and mature as young scientists.”

“No matter what is going on around us, research never stops. I was accepted into the Ole Miss REU this summer but it was ultimately cancelled and I was given this amazing opportunity to continue doing what I love here at Mississippi State,” said Laura N. Olive. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to continue doing research because I was able to make stronger connections and set a path for graduate school.”

For Olive, this summer’s research was a continuation of an August 2019 poster presentation she gave at the American Chemical Society national conference in San Diego.

Figgins’s participation led to a published peer-reviewed paper, “Structure Function Relationships in Ruthenium Carbon Dioxide Reduction Catalysts with CNC Pincers Containing Donor Groups,” in the European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry, 2020, 2709-2717.

Figgins has another paper, “Impact of the Dissolved Anion on the Electrocatalytic Reduction of CO2 to CO with Ruthenium CNC Pincer Complexes,” due to appear in print this fall in ChemCatChem, the European Society Journal for Catalysis.

Frey’s work contributed to two peer-reviewed papers: “Tris(Carbene)-Stabilization of Monomeric Magnesium Cations: A Neutral, Non-tethered Ligand Approach” published in Organometallics, 2020, and “Planar, Stair-Stepped, and Twisted: Modulating Structure and Photophysics in Pyrene- and Benzene-Fused N-Heterocyclic Boranes,” published in Chemistry-A European Journal, 2020, 26, 10072-10082.

“Special thanks to all in the Webster Group, especially Dr. Robert Lamb and Dr. Eric Dornshuld, for helping and encouraging Matthew, Nathan, and Laura,” Webster said.
Figgins said continuing summer research is “the best way to get in depth research experience and learn new things from new people.”

Frey said, “Working throughout COVID was actually a surprise to me, as many research groups across the nation have/had been temporarily shut down due to the virus. In my opinion, science never stops.”

Each supervising faculty member was tasked with implementing COVID-19 safety protocols.

“Everyone wore a mask and we spaced out in the lab,” said Olive, who kept hand sanitizer close by for repeated use. “For group meetings, we transitioned into one of the larger lecture rooms with a projector in order to spread six feet apart.”

“I feel as if student researchers in our department were given a phenomenal chance to keep the research going and keep science moving forward,” Frey said.

These students have been supported in part by funding from four different National Science Foundation grants awarded to chemistry faculty at MSU, including: NSF REU-INFEWS 1659830: Food, Energy, Water Security (PI Todd Mlsna and coPI Deb Mlsna); NSF CHE 1800201: Atomistic Switches on Pyridinol Based Pincer Ligated Catalysts for Carbon Dioxide Reduction (PI C. E. Webster); NSF OIA 1539035: Feeding and Powering the World - Capturing Sunlight to Split Water and Generate Fertilizer and Fuels (coPIs C. E. Webster and T. Keith Hollis); and NSF S-STEM 1458449: Breaking the Silo-Mathematics as a Common Language in Science (coPI Deb Mlsna).

MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences includes more than 5,200 students, 325 full-time faculty members, nine doctoral programs, 14 master’s programs, and 27 undergraduate academic majors offered in 14 departments. MSU is classified by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as a “Very High Research Activity” doctoral university, the highest level of research activity in the country. MSU is one of only 120 schools to hold the designation. For more details about the College of Arts and Sciences or the Department of Chemistry visit or Mississippi’s leading university, also available online at

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