October 16, 2023

When dozens of ginkgo trees were planted on Susquehanna’s campus nearly 100 years ago, it was unlikely students could have envisioned how the leaves would be used today. Not only has the distinctive fan-shaped leaf become one of the university’s most enduring symbols, it has also found its way into the research lab.

Students in Susquehanna’s laser lab are using campus gingko leaves and other natural ingredients such as rosemary and eucalyptus to make extracts to create iron nanoparticles and determine the particle’s ability to generate reactive oxygen — which, in a biological context, has mostly negative effects, ranging from aging to causing genetic mutations. However, reactive oxygen can also be harnessed for other, more beneficial, applications.

Grace Kuhns ’25, a chemistry and biomedical sciences double major from Selinsgrove, and Regan Kane ’26, a biomedical sciences major from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, are specifically using the lasers to determine which nanoparticles are most successful at degrading dyes — a critical step in treating wastewater.

“We illuminate the nanoparticles with a visible laser and measure the reactive oxygen production with a specifically designed detector,” explained Kuhns.

About the laser lab

Susquehanna University’s lasers are located in a specialized research facility that is equipped with a variety of laser systems, said Swarna Basu, department head and professor of chemistry at Susquehanna. These lasers emit different wavelengths, intensities and hues of light, allowing students and faculty to tailor their experiments to specific applications.

“In the simplest terms, a laser is a very powerful light source that has lots of applications, from medical to industrial to research,” Basu said.

The lab also contains optical setups, including mirrors, lenses, beam splitters and other components to control and manipulate laser beams, which are crucial for directing laser light to the target samples or for conducting experiments, he said.

Susquehanna students have recently used the laser suite for photodynamic therapy and tissue engineering research. So far in Kuhns and Kane’s research, iron nanoparticles created using rosemary have yielded the most promising results when measuring their ability to generate reactive oxygen that can degrade dyes.

“I love working in the laser lab,” Kane said. “Everyday Grace and I are working on new things and seeing different types of data. I feel like I am really understanding so much about the world of chemistry, and how it works.”

Kuhns hopes to enter the brewing industry after graduation, while Kane is considering medical or graduate school.

“Though my research at first might not seem to relate to my post-grad plans, there are quite a few transferrable skills,” Kuhns said. “The precision, record-keeping and safe chemical practices I have learned in the lab have greatly improved my aseptic techniques and consistency that will be important for brewing.”

Learn more about the School of Natural and Social Sciences.